* This article has been published by Hurriyet Daily News (with Melih Özsöz).
The annual progress reports prepared by the European Commission in order to assess the negotiation process of candidate countries were published on Nov. 10, 2015. European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn published the reports after a controversial delay. The progress reports, which in general do not produce any interest or excitement either in the EU or in candidate countries, were published this year in a new format for the first time, including a different methodology, marking a new generation.
The new enlargement tool of a non-enlarging Europe
The “next-generation progress reports” contain a number of interesting assessments and pledges, despite being released in a period where the EU has announced that no enlargement would happen until 2019. In his first speech to the European Parliament, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker drew attention to the union’s new strategy and closed the door on further enlargement. Nonetheless, the commission has not stayed inactive. It once again used the progress report, which constitutes one of the most important tools in the hands of the commission, to encourage candidate countries on their path towards membership and to prevent them from succumbing to enlargement fatigue. However, this year the commission used the report in a much more intelligent and strategic fashion.
Why are the next generation progress reports different?
With the new generation of progress reports, the European Commission presented a much more reader-friendly document to candidate countries. Furthermore, with the new clear and consistent terminology used in the chapters, making comparisons between candidate countries has become possible. In the introduction of each chapter, an assessment of all developments that have taken place in the last year was produced within the framework of alignment with EU acquis. In these assessments, the level of progress was categorized as “good progress,” “some progress,” “no progress” and “backsliding,” while the level of alignment with EU acquis was summarized into five categories: “Early stage,” “moderately prepared,” “some level of preparation,” “good level of preparation” and “well advanced.” Another notable difference between the new generation and the previous progress reports was the fact the major steps which candidate countries need to take towards membership were spelled out. With such specific recommendations addressed towards candidate countries, the commission has in a way given candidates an annual “homework” assignment that needs to be accomplished.
How should we read the new generation progress reports?
Within the new reports’ five categories, it is possible to measure each country’s level of alignment through a simple mathematical calculation. Thus, when such a calculation was realized within the 2015 progress reports, each candidate country’s level and of alignment with the EU acquis was calculated, in order, as follows: Macedonia (70.8 percent), Turkey (61.2 percent), Serbia (57 percent), Montenegro (55.8 percent) and Albania (45.6 percent). It is, however, impossible to make such an assessment for potential candidate countries Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, as their progress reports are different since they have not yet gained candidacy status.
Let the competition begin: Welcome the ‘candidate meter’
Will the new generation of progress reports finally open the door to EU membership for candidate countries? The answer to this question will be given in the future according to the performance of each candidate country and the EU’s own absorption capacity. Undeniably, candidate countries should keep in mind two important questions before next year’s progress report is published: what is my level of alignment with the EU acquis, and how are my competitors doing? Therefore, as this comparison could be used as a “candidate-meter,” it is probable that candidate countries would further focus on their EU membership process not only through their internal dynamics but also external ones.
As a matter of fact, this new technique is not unfamiliar to those closely following the EU integration process of Western Balkan countries. The EU created the conditions for a similar competition between these countries in the context of their respective visa liberalization processes. Citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro were thus granted visa-free travel in December 2009, whereas citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina waited until December 2010 for this opportunity.
18th Turkey progress report: How many more reports are needed?
The European Commission published the first progress report on Turkey in 1998. The 2015 progress report is thus the 18th report on Turkey, and with this report the commission has produced almost 1,600 pages on Turkey’s candidacy status. Nonetheless, these 1,600 pages have yet not opened the door of EU membership to Turkey. When taking into account the current situation in Europe and Turkey, it is difficult to say how many more reports are needed before Turkey will become an EU member state.