Former Minister of European Affairs, Chief Negotiator for EU Accession Talks and National Coordinator for the Instrument for Pre-Accession Funds of Montenegro.
I believe the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and its effects, especially the protracted economic crisis and the EU’s own recovery prospects and modalities (such as through the EU Recovery Fund), will adversely affect the regions’ accession dynamics for the years to come
How do you assess the current prospects of the Western Balkans for EU Accession?
Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed a plethora of events taking place at the regional, EU and global level that have made the prospects, commitment or eagerness for another EU enlargement less certain, for both the EU and the Western Balkan countries. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the EU has been exposed to multiple crises which have been further compounded by the refugee, Brexit and COVID-19 challenges. The Western Balkans, on the other hand, have been experiencing a series of problems in meeting the criteria for membership, which from one enlargement round to the next have become more and more stringent and demanding, especially in the area of rule of law. True, the agreement to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is a welcoming sign, but I believe the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and its effects, especially the protracted economic crisis and the EU’s own recovery prospects and modalities (such as through the EU Recovery Fund), will adversely affect the regions’ accession dynamics for the years to come.
What do you make of the EU-funded technical assistance projects to the candidate and potential candidate countries?
The technical assistance projects in the region have proven to be of essential use and support for the administrations of the Western Balkan countries on their path to EU membership. This assistance has provided the national administrations with necessary tools on several levels. First and foremost, it has allowed the candidate countries’ administrations to learn and grow with the provided expertise and thus become much better prepared to meet the EU requirements and standards. The programmes of assistance have also equipped the administration with technical, IT and infrastructure support. I would also add that the experience gained through these projects has been instrumental for the process of accession talks, which would have been much slower, less dynamic and based on worse quality if there had been no technical assistance.
What are your expectations from Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III)?
Pre-accession Assistance bringing a lot of new rules and procedures; the biggest change being the absence of fixed allocations, thus introducing the element of competition among the beneficiary countries. The gradual introduction of indirect management of IPA projects will continue apace, there will be thematic windows instead of IPA II sectors, while the beneficiaries will have to prepare strategic responses. Apart from these more structural changes, in practice this would mean that the candidate and potential candidate countries will have to invest in developing their strategic thinking capacities if they want to remain able to use EU assistance. This represents a huge change compared to IPA I and II as well as previous enlargement rounds. Those candidates that are next to join the EU need to use IPA III as a vehicle that would bring them very close to the future usage of structural and cohesion funds. Therefore, assisting IPA countries in better preparing for this change at this moment would be crucial.
The EU has at its disposal a variety of different support instruments to assist IPA countries, including Technical Assistance projects, Twinning and Sector Budget Support. Which of the EU support instruments, according to your experience, is the most suitable for the enlargement countries and why?
I strongly believe that the EU pre-accession assistance will continue to be tremendously relevant and an essential instrument for reform for those countries aspiring to join the EU. As the experience of ongoing and past enlargement rounds has shown, technical assistance projects have proved, despite some of their shortcomings, the most successful instrument to support the upskilling of national administrations, their institutional reform and development, their exposure to EU project cycle management modalities and policy dialogue with their EU counterparts. Technical Assistance (TA) projects have also been instrumental in building the capacities of civil society organisations. These results cannot be easily produced by some other form of assistance. For example, sector budget support does not allow for a coherent and structured way of building the expertise among the civil servants since it relies on the assumption that the expertise to achieve the necessary targets already exists within the beneficiary. Twinning projects, on the other hand, do not possess enough flexibility and are not sometimes wide enough to encompass the necessary expertise or skills to turn the know-how of EU Member States civil servants into practical tools such as guidelines, manuals or training programmes. TA projects, instead, mobilise experts on a competitive fashion, where they are accountable to the contracting and beneficiary authorities. Therefore, TA projects should remain an essential instrument of pre-accession support assisting IPA countries to achieve the enlargement goals faster, better and in a more sustainable manner.