The EU’s new enlargement policy and Turkey

Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.

The fall of 2019 was a silent turning point for the European Union. First, the EU Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced on September 10 that in her term, she will lead a “geopolitical” commission and Europe will learn “the language of power.” Subsequently, in October, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked Albania and Macedonia’s EU membership accession talks, citing the need to reform the EU enlargement policy — thus actualizing the debates on altering the rules on becoming an EU member. 

Both of these turning points are vitally important for Turkey. And while the concept of a “geopolitical” commission remains nebulous, the second goal of learning the “language of power” is developing quickly. 

Last week, EU Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi unveiled a revised methodology for the new EU accession policy in Brussels. According to proposals outlined by Várhelyi on February 5, there will be a bigger emphasis on rule of law reforms in the accession process, and EU member states will be more involved in monitoring candidate countries. Moreover, any progress achieved in the accession process will be reversible. In Várhelyi’s words, the Commission seeks to “make it clear that we can also go backwards,” and that, “in our public opinion and in our Members States, there is a very strong call that we need to be able to reverse also the negotiations.”  

While sharing the proposed new roadmap for accession, Várhelyi emphasized that the EU’s commitment to admitting six countries has not waned. These include first and foremost North Macedonia and Albania, followed by Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo. 

Várhelyi’s aforementioned statement and the official document for the “revised methodology” do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU. 

The new methodology is yet to be defined in more concrete terms; what is now in place is more of a conceptual outline, as opposed to the step-by-step framework proposed by France back in November 2019. 

According to France’s plan, the accession countries would be monitored in seven steps. Those who are unable to implement the reforms for a step will not be able to proceed to the next one. Each step would be complemented with a carrot and stick approach, in which the candidate country would be “rewarded” with certain advantages of EU membership. But the whole package would be available only to those who are able to complete all steps. 

The new methodology proposed by the Commission promises a “more credible, dynamic, predictable, politically stronger” enlargement process — but does not go into detail about how these targets will be achieved. 

Where France’s “Seven-Step Proposal” and the Commission’s methodology coincide is in the emphasis on the rule of law: both foresee the completion of the “rule of law” criteria as the first and foremost step of accession. That’s where contemporary Turkey’s accession process would end before it even resumed. The seven steps are listed as the following: rule of law and fundamental rights, education and research, employment and social affairs, financial affairs, the single market, agriculture and fisheries, foreign affairs, and “others.” 

France and the Commission diverge on when the enlargement should proceed, though. Macron has clearly underlined that he prefers reform within the EU first before starting to accept new members. In his interview with the Economist, he reiterated that:

“I don’t want any further new members until we’ve reformed the European Union itself. In my opinion that’s an honest, and indispensable, prerequisite.”

Nevertheless, the Commission’s methodology document and Várhelyi himself indicated that the accession process for North Macedonia and Albania will continue on without any interruption ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May. At this summit, an economic and investment plan for the region will be presented to strengthen the process of accession.

How about Turkey?

Even floating the idea of a new enlargement policy was met with “preemptive objection” from Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu sent a letter to Várhelyi on Jan. 22 in anticipation of the Commission’s declaration. The letter was also addressed to the EU Commission’s high representative Josep Borrell, and Gordan Grlic-Radman, Croatia's minister of foreign and European affairs, since Croatia holds the presidency of the EU Council until July 2020. But, it is unlikely that Çavuşoğlu’s letter objecting to the changing the rules of the accession game will be the last of Turkey’s objections to the EU Commission’s recent changes in heart and mind. One does not need to be a wizard to prophesize that the paths of the Commission and Turkey will continue to diverge in the future. 

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