Tag: EU Membership

Everyday I Love You Less and Less: Here’s what you missed at our Western Balkans event

  • December 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth



The Centre for European Progression held a panel discussion on Monday 9th December entitled The EU and the Western Balkans – An End of a Romance? Our panellists shared some vital insights for the future of the EU and for the Western Balkans.


CFEP’s CEO István Szekeres began the event with a brief introduction to the topic.


The first speaker was one of the few MEPs to hold a Serbian passport, Andor Deli MEP (EPP), a dual national of Hungary and Serbia. For him, the EU accession of the Western Balkan states is personal. He knows people who have been waiting two decades to become part of the European Union.  He spent his younger years in Vojvodina, Northern Serbia, which were marked by travel bans, embargoes, and NATO bombing. These experiences make him want integration even more.


For Mr Deli, keeping Serbia on the European path is essential, but the pace of the process is too slow. The October veto has also led to a loss of trust between the EU and the Western Balkan states. However, he sees a chance for a reset and rebuilding of trust with the new Commission. The Western Balkans can serve as a litmus test. If Member States can reach an agreement on that, they may yet be able to tackle thorny policy problems in other areas.


Andreas Schieder MEP (S&D), the Chair of the Delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, spoke next. Before becoming an MEP, he was the Chair of the Austrian-Serbian Parliamentary Delegation. For Mr Schieder, the Balkan states are part of Europe and, by extension, should be part of the EU. He believes that the Balkan states must work with other countries to solve their regional problems. In that regard, North Macedonia fulfilled all the conditions. The promise that Western Balkan countries will be rewarded for solving tricky issues no longer works after Macron’s veto.


The whole European Parliament, possibly bar the Identity and Democracy group, supported accession talks. Mr Schieder met North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on the same day they found out the answer was No. He learned there is a risk of nationalist grievance-based resurgence surrounding the name change.  After the EU’s decision, early elections in North Macedonia will take place at the end of April. At this point, Mr Schieder noted there was a chance to approve the talks in a March summit. For him, as the talks do not begin immediately, it is possible to reform the enlargement process (as Macron suggested) and open accession talks at once.


Alexandra Stiglmayer, of the European Stability Initiative think tank, was the third speaker. She presented a variety of statistics on the Western Balkans and discussed several problems with the accession process. The first was its lengthy nature, which results in painful reforms for a distant future benefit. Another problem relates to the EU institutions. There are over 70 veto possibilities. Member States have to approve progress at each stage (application, official candidacy, negotiations). These vetoes often have little to do with the country’s actions, but with domestic views on enlargement.


She also noted that even if certain countries are ahead in the accession process, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their readiness to join the EU. North Macedonia, which has not yet begun negotiations, is ahead of Serbia in Commission assessments. Secondly, Commission reports are also vague and lack concrete details which could guide foreign investors or NGOs. Thirdly, she added that these countries lag far behind the EU average and do not get much help to catch up.


She noted the Commission often argues that the Western Balkans do not have the absorption capacity to spend their allocated EU funding. Romania and Slovenia do not spend their entire allocation either, and yet they have seen dramatic improvement. Committed governments, such as North Macedonia, would make use of the money. The monitoring mechanism also needs reforms to include merit-based and detailed key requirements. These would aid comparison between states and remove the potential for political vetoes. Her third, and final, proposal involves pre-accession single market access. This would involve the implementation of 60-70% of the acquis. It could also motivate politicians who otherwise think in electoral cycles.


Dr Isabelle Ioannides, a Senior Associate Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, was the final speaker. She was cautiously optimistic about the chances of enlargement to the Western Balkans. It was not just any Member State that blocked the talks: it was France, which holds big sway at EU level and whose preferences cannot be overlooked. However, she noted that experts have had long-term concerns about enlargement policy and that there is a case for reform. These include ineffective development conditionality, double standards, and poor performance in Common Security and Defence Policy missions.


The risk, according to Dr Ioannides, is coupling enlargement reform to internal reforms. This could potentially push enlargement off the agenda. Shared responsibility is needed: willingness from below and pressure from above. She remained optimistic as a result of the continued pro-European and pro-enlargement majority in the European Union, and the re-election of MEPs with experience on the Western Balkans. The Commission should be given a chance, although she remains concerned not just about France, but other Member States which have questioned Albania’s readiness (such as Greece). Others still are happy to hide behind France’s veto. In light of the Commission resulting from backroom manoeuvres, she wondered if it would be able to stand up to the Member States on enlargement. For Dr Ioannides, enlargement was never a romance. It is a long-term process of hard work and sacrifice. Western Balkan countries need to understand it is a road of sacrifice, and the EU needs to be more understanding of the sacrifices made.


Audience questions touched on Macron’s non-paper ‘Reforming the European Union accession process’, the role of non-EU states in the region, Turkey, Ukraine, and, finally, the future of the region in 2030. Dr Ioannides did not think any of the Western Balkan countries would be members by that date. Ms Stiglmayer was more optimistic, perhaps seeing North Macedonia and Montenegro as members by 2030. For Mr Schieder, 2040 was a more realistic time schedule. By contrast, Mr Deli felt something had to happen by 2030 for the enlargement policy to remain workable.


The region’s future may be uncertain, but what is certain is that the EU-Western Balkans debates are here to stay – whether the Member States like it or not.

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Scotland’s Story: here’s what you missed at our panel discussion

  • November 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

The CFEP held a well-attended panel discussion on the Wednesday 6th November at the Press Club Brussels on the topic of Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire? If you weren’t able to attend, here’s a brief summary of what you missed.

Sheila Ritchie MEP began the event with a passionate defence of Scotland remaining in the UK. She cited her party’s preamble, stating that “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries.” The Liberal Democrats oppose another independence referendum and support a referendum on Brexit. This is often challenged for inconsistency, but for Mrs Ritchie, it is about ending existing chaos and preventing additional chaos. She explained that the difficulties of undoing a 46-year old partnership between the UK and the EU would only be amplified in undoing a 416-year-old partnership between Scotland and England. For people new to Scottish politics, Mrs Ritchie provided an insight into what it was like to campaign against independence in 2014. She described it as the worst experience of her political life and the beginning of post-truth politics. Economics does matter, and she noted that Scotland’s deficit is above the 3% target required for EU members under the Stability and Growth Pact. People, however, matter the most: Mrs Ritchie highlighted that a lot of Scots are married to people from other parts of the UK, and raised concerns about building divides between those communities. Her party wants a “reformed, federal, and fair union”. She conceded there would be little chance of this under a Boris Johnson government, but noted that this was another reason why they were fighting to stop him in the December 12 General Election.


Christian Allard MEP naturally disagreed with Sheila, but the two MEPs had a good-natured debate. For Mr Allard, his identity as a French Scot demonstrates the openness of the independence movement for people from everywhere. It was important to him that people’s ideas were not castigated, but that people were given respect and space to talk about their ideas. He believes most people are not hardcore supporters of either side and they make their decisions on polling, noting that he knew people who voted for their chosen side and would have been content with the result either way. Indeed, he sought to oppose the notion of two camps as simplistic: there were people in Scotland who voted Yes and Remain, Yes and Leave, No and Leave, and No and Remain. Overall, what matters for Mr Allard is the future. He explained that the future that people want is what really counts, and they should have the democratic and legal chance to vote on it. He acknowledged it would have been easier to become independent in 2014 because back then both Scotland and the UK were fully aligned to and participating in the EU. That is what united the two MEPs: they differ on independence but are fighting to keep the whole UK in the EU.

Schams El Ghoneimi spoke next, mentioning his time at the European Parliament. Part of his role involved assessing what an independent Scotland’s foreign policy would look like. Would it be like Denmark? Would it have opposed the Iraq War, if that happened today? Would it agree to host migrants from Italy and Greece, and then follow through on those commitments like many other states did not? His aim during his interventions on our panel was to look at the nuances of the issue: there were obstacles, but also things that had changed since 2014. For example, Josep Borrell stated that Spain would not block Scotland from joining the EU.

Mr El Ghoneimi added that this is a totally unprecedented situation, and so the EU would likely find a way over the political hurdles. The economic ones may be more complex to deal with. He noted, however, that there are real economic hurdles and that the Scottish independence campaign has work to do to win over those who voted No in 2014. He added that the EU would enjoy a strong message that joining is still desirable – and another net contributor to the budget. Scotland has an inclusive vision of what it means to be Scottish, but its pro-Europeanness is not perfect. Neither Lib Dem or SNP MEPs supported harmonising corporation tax rates or transnational lists. Opposition to the Euro persists, due to Scottish integration in the UK currency union. The most important consideration for Mr El Ghoneimi is where the most pro-European dynamic lies: it would be unlikely for the UK to remain in the EU, but that would be good for the world. If it did not, Scotland could be tempted away in favour of the EU.


Finally, Larissa Brunner rounded off the panel with the EU’s perspective on an independent Scotland. She agreed that Scottish membership would give the EU a PR boost. Furthermore, Scottish participation in the Common Fisheries Policy really matters for the other Member States. The only way to guarantee that it will continue to take part is remaining in the EU. Spain, particularly, does a lot of fishing in Scottish waters. She also agreed it would not veto Scottish independence: it sees the Catalan and Scottish cases as distinct based on legality and cooperation with the central government. It is also politically costly to veto, and Member States are unlikely to expend political capital to do so.

She described Scotland’s potential EU role as being part of the group of small Northern European liberal Member States that do not have the Euro. Such states used to hide behind the UK so they would not have to voice their own concerns but will need to speak up for themselves after Brexit. There is the danger of being marginalised by the Franco-German concentration of power, but these countries will all still have a vote and a Commissioner. She disagreed with commentators who suggest there is a ‘queue’ for membership but noted that Scotland will still have to go through the steps (albeit that this will be a short process.) Ms Brunner suggested EFTA could be a good holding place for it: Scotland being ‘small and humble’ enough to accept being a rule-taker and paying into the EU budget.

Audience questions were varied, discussing everything from the state of the Scottish border after independence to the nature of democracy as we know it. At the CFEP, we aim to facilitate discussion about the future of Europe and help people in the Brussels bubble learn more about the stories they see in the news. Our audience asked some insightful questions about the details of devolution in Scotland and federalism, and our panellists used some terms you might not have come across before.

Scotland has a system of devolved and reserved powers. This gets complex. The Scottish Parliament has an infographic summarising which issues are decided there and which are retained at Westminster. How does this relate to the EU, you might be asking? As Mr El Ghoneimi mentioned, Scottish Government representatives participate in EU meetings in their areas of expertise. As set out in this guide for Scottish Government officials, it is almost assumed that they would want to attend Council Working Parties on environmental, agricultural and fisheries issues. Mrs Ritchie sought to explain Henry VIII powers: the issue with Brexit is that the EU Withdrawal Act allows the UK Government to use these powers to copy EU law into UK law without having to consult Parliament. One question our audience members asked relates to the internal debate about these competencies – once they are regained from the EU, there is a controversy about when they will be devolved to the Scottish government.


Finally, we ended our event by imagining the future. If Scotland became independent, in its first Council Presidency, our panel generally agreed it can and should prioritise leading on climate change. Mr Allard added that he wanted to refocus Scotland and Europe on wellbeing, plugging Nicola Sturgeon’s TED Talk on the topic, and Mrs Ritchie wanted Scotland to take advantage of the EU’s tools to assist its smaller, more remote regions.


We hope you enjoyed our event, and that you learned something about Scotland and its potential futures. Watch this space for our next discussion event in December!

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Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire?

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire?


Independence is not a panacea, and its supporters must tread carefully to avoid replicating the mistakes of Brexit


Source: Pixabay


Last week, a Lord Ashcroft poll showed that Scottish voters would back independence from the rest of the United Kingdom by 52% to 48%: strangely enough, the exact same split as in the 2016 EU referendum. The two situations have more in common than most people think. If Scotland did leave the UK in favour of the EU, it would also be a bitterly divided nation.

Conventional wisdom sees independence as a Brexit emergency escape, but it is important to look back at 2014’s Scottish referendum. In many ways, this was a warning about what was to come. Nigel Farage and the Brexit campaign did not invent the populist ‘Project Fear’ slogan. It was originally an in-joke by pro-UK campaigner Rob Shorthouse in response to the pro-independence campaign’s tactic of writing criticisms off as scaremongering. The phrase was later taken up by ex-First Minister Alex Salmond to assist him in deflecting tricky questions for the rest of the campaign.

Many Scots found the debate to be divisive, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. 39% of Scots – a sizeable minority – agreed that the independence vote had ’caused harmful and lasting divisions in Scottish society’. It was also a precursor to today’s fake news problems: the official Yes campaign had to intervene after pro-independence conspiracy theorists proclaimed the referendum was rigged on the basis of online videos. A new referendum on essentially the same issue, then, would reopen those old wounds on top of the pre-existing Brexit related divisions. The same Ashcroft poll mentioned above found that support for a second independence referendum runs at 47% in favour, and 45% against. This reflects a divided Scotland, hardly amounting to a mass national clamour to leave the UK.

Any debate would risk falling into the old trap of ‘heart versus head’ rhetoric, where Yes campaigners are ambitious freedom-fighters and No campaigners are cautious calculators. Having seen the Brexit debate, everyone in Europe now knows where the former can lead. Rather than pushing for a referendum on a supposed groundswell of righteous anger, Scotland should stop to think about what kind of nation it would be.  The Growth Commission has attempted to seek a way forward, in order to deal with some of the weaknesses of the previous Yes campaign. It noticeably floundered on currency and on its economic projections’ over-reliance on oil and gas, both of which the Growth Commission has tried to rectify.

Whether it successfully does so is a different matter. Scots, although generally pro-EU, are not willing to rush headlong into a more federalist relationship with their European partners. It is hard to find Scotland-specific polling on European issues, but when asked in April 2019 whether they wished to keep using the pound, have a new Scottish currency instead, or join the Euro instead, only 7% of Scots chose the Euro. An independent Scotland could gamble on the Commission’s unwillingness to enforce a Scottish commitment to moving towards the Euro and would likely get a Schengen opt-out to remain in the Common Travel area. However, it would not inherit the British rebate or opt-in status on Justice and Home Affairs.

Not all Scots are as pro-EU as would be expected: indeed, Scottish fishermen demand that the UK ‘take back control’ of its fishing waters and a study found that 93% of Scottish fishermen intended to vote Leave. Although a small community, fishing is a culturally important traditional industry in particular areas of Scotland and its representatives actively lobby for their interests in Scotland, the UK and EU. The SNP would rapidly find that, if it were the governing party of an independent state, it could not please all of the people all of the time. The case of Moray, a coastal council area in North East Scotland, served as a cautionary tale to Bute House: not only did it narrowly vote Remain (by 122 votes), it ended the 16-year tenure of its SNP MP in favour of a Scottish Conservative.

Brexit, as ever, also complicates matters. While trying to unpick a 300-year-old Union,  which could easily become an acrimonious process considering Scotland once also threatened not to pay its divorce bill, it would simultaneously face negotiations with the European Union. The previous dispute about whether Scotland would become a third country and have to accede through the standard procedure no longer matters. Original predictions that Scotland could conclude its accession within 18 months were ambitious, and it now may take almost 10 years to reach that point depending on which disputes arise.

In combination with the Growth Commission plans to draw down the deficit over ten years, there is no foreseeable situation where Scotland does not face pressure on public services. Keeping to the Commission’s proposal that total public spending should increase by less than 1% a year for the first decade of independence would result in a decrease of around 4% of GDP in spending on public services and benefits over that decade, according to the IFS. Scottish local government is already concerned about its ability to provide essential services. The Scottish Government has cut their budgets by 7.5% since 2013: over twice as large a cut as the 2.8% reduction in the Scottish budget (made up of UK Treasury grant funds and devolved taxation/borrowing).

Overall, for Scotland, although it may seem tempting, rushing out of the UK exit door would not be the quick fix it has been portrayed as. Anti-Brexit sentiment will only get the nation so far, and it lacks a full European strategy going beyond Brexit. EU Member States would welcome it in, but cautiously – they do not want another version of the UK demanding optouts and blocking progress. The Scottish Government would do well to think about what they can do for Europe (and what it would do in the rotating Council Presidency), rather than thinking of what Europe can do to get them closer to independence.


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Accession is a two-way street

  • June 2018
  • Natalia Domingo

Accession is a two-way street

What behaviourist B. F. Skinner can teach us about the EU’s Accession Procedures with Albania

I can thank psychological theory for shaping my dog into an obedient animal: if he pees in the house, he gets a smack on the nose; if he pees outside, he gets a treat. As a result, he has learned to pee outside, rather than inside, with the understanding that he will be rewarded or punished for certain behaviors. This method of learning is called operant conditioning which was coined by behaviorist B. F. Skinner. The method connects the reoccurrence of particular behaviors with reinforcements through rewards or consequences. A reinforcement in the form of rewards, also called “positive reinforcers”, are favorable outcomes that can strengthen or increase the reoccurrence of a behavior. Conversely, reinforcement in the form of punishments, also called “positive punishment”, are unfavorable outcomes that can decrease the reoccurrence of a behavior. This behavioral model can provide the EU with deeper considerations in moving forward with Albania’s accession negotiations.


Albania submitted a formal application for EU membership in 2009, with the European Commission declaring that Albania would have to fulfill particular requirements to fit membership criteria. Due to substantial improvements, Albania was provided candidate status in 2014. Albania continues to be monitored based on five major priorities, as noted by the 2018 Commission Report on Albania. The first is that Albania reforms its public administration by enhancing professionalism and decreasing politicization in its practices. The second priority is the reinforcement of an independent, efficient and accountable judiciary. The third priority is that Albania continues efforts in fighting corruption, including the establishment of a track record of proactive investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. The fourth priority is to continue fighting organized crime, including the establishment of a solid track record of proactive investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. The last priority is taking effective measures to reinforce the protection of human rights, including those of minorities such as the Roma, and implement anti-discrimination policies and property rights.


While Albania has displayed great strides, the opening of negotiations is likely to be vetoed by the Netherlands in the upcoming EU Summit, after the Dutch Parliament condemned such actions. The parties Democrats 66 (D66) and GroenLinks showed support for initiating accession talks with Albania and Macedonia due to clear trends in its improvements and prospects for fulfilling all requirements. However, a number of parliamentary factions, such as People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Christian Democrat (CU), Party for Freedom (PVV), Communist Party (SP), and 50Plus have voted against it, expressing concerns of continued corruption. CDA MEP Martijn Van Helvert expressed that “there is progress in Albania, for example, in reforming the judiciary. Judges are, for example screened. But of the 800 judges only ten have been tested. Then you cannot say: the country is ready for negotiations on accession.”


While there remains room for improvement, Albania’s political willpower in pursuing intractable judiciary reform has displayed a great level of commitment and should not go unnoticed. Some reforms include measures to reduce the influence of the parliament and executive on the judiciary; measures to increase the independence and effectiveness of the High Court, the Constitutional High Court, and the High Council of Justice and Prosecution system; measures to increase accountability of judges and prosecutors by setting up a new High Judicial Council, a High Prosecutorial Council, and a High Justice inspector; as well as measures to increase justice efficiency and access to justice. While some member-states have expressed concern with the prospect for corruption, it should be taken into consideration that these sort of judicial reforms can have a positive spillover effect to other key priorities, such as in the fight against corruption.


According to the report, there has been an increase in the number of corruption cases referred, as well as the number of cases sent to the court. First and second instance convictions for junior or middle-ranking officials has consistently increased, and the opening of cases against high-level state officials has also begun to increase. Although convictions of high-state officials are moving at a much slower pace, trust for the country’s rule of law is growing stronger and people are more willing to seek access to the courts when they otherwise would not have.


Unfortunately, despite these substantial reforms, the EU has failed to show any political commitment to Albania and this may lead to unfavorable results for the Union. Referring back to B. F. Skinner’s “operant conditioning” theory, “positive reinforcements” can help increase the reoccurrence of a particular behavior—in this case, further pursuing accession negotiations as a result of Albania’s reforms. But failing to reciprocate may act as a “positive punishment”, creating frustration, halting reform efforts, or worst case scenario, causing a back-track in reforms. This does not necessarily mean that Albania was only willing to make such changes in the case that EU membership was a possibility—further strengthening the idea that EU membership only dresses illiberal countries in democrats’ clothes.  But there are actors willing to fill the gap left by the EU’s lack of commitment to the country, and more particularly, the region. For example, Russia or Turkey, or even internal actors within the Balkans who would like to stop the progression of these reforms. Therefore, it is in the EU’s best interests to provide an unambiguous assurance that if Albania fulfills the conditions set for it, the EU will reciprocate as agreed.


For those who are worried that Albania has not completely fulfilled the criteria, opening negotiations does not necessarily mean explicitly determining an official date for accession. Rather, opening negotiations can show that the EU is now willing to take more steps towards determining an accession date, therefore acting as a “positive reinforcer” and influencing Albania to continue pursuing these reforms. This can set a precedent for the other Balkan states, who are moving at a slower pace, that greater reforms can lead to more favorable results. As well, if everything proves to be successful, the reforms made by Albania can act as a model for other Balkan states’ reform efforts.


Overall, achieving these sort of developments in the Western Balkans is not just in the interest of Balkan states to achieve membership in the EU, but also for the European Union to spread European values in the region. The integration of the Western Balkan states into the EU can allow for the development of their economies and societies, which will lead to long-term peace and prosperity. As Frederica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU’s Foreign Affairs, stated: “It is the first wave of integration in the European Union that goes back to the DNA of the history of the Union—peace and reconciliation. It is not just about economy, it is not just about security, it is not about spheres of influence, it is about bringing and consolidating peace and reconciliation in a region.”


Failing to show for its political commitments will not only harm its interests in the Western Balkans, but it will also harm its credibility by resembling a failure to collectively deliver on its promises. The Western Balkans, and particularly, Albania’s, consistent commitment to establishing membership can help lift up the Union at a time when euro-sceptic parties are on the rise—but the EU must give back. When asked about how Brexit affected Albania’s accession, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama answered: “You know, when a person wants to get married, they don’t understand those who want to get a divorce.” Showing a desire for this sort of sentiment can help increase the reoccurrence of it, and as Mogherini expressed about Albania, “we need that kind of energy, this pro-European energy inside the Union exactly to remind ourselves what it is about.”

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