EU enlargement has been celebrated as the European Union's most successful foreign policy. The peaceful transformation in postcommunist Europe is a tribute not only to the peoples and leaders of those 10 countries, but also to the umbrella provided by the European Union. Dr. Michael Leigh, who has served as director-general for enlargement since 2006, highlighted the successes of the enlargement process to date as well as the main challenges to come.
The current EU enlargement agenda includes clear commitments to the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey. In addition to the usual accession requirements listed in the Copenhagen Criteria and in the acquis communautaire, the countries seeking membership today face additional challenges brought on by the global financial crisis, the EU's institutional reorganization in line with the new Lisbon Treaty, as well as the difficulties the EU faces in digesting the last two enlargements. For these reasons, the EU has adjusted its policies in order to address these changing circumstances and the specific challenges in the region.
The countries of the Western Balkans are facing disproportionate challenges brought on by the economic and financial crisis. The good news, Leigh argued, is that these economies are already interdependent with the EU, which means that it is a common interest of the EU and the Western Balkans to resolve these issues together. To that end, the EU has been working with the IMF, the World Bank and EBRD to coordinate their policies and aid to the region.
Another adjustment to the enlargement policy is the introduction of intermediate ‘rewards,' which are intended to push the reform process forward despite the longer accession time-frame. The most visible of these policies was the July 2009 agreement for visa-free travel for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Leigh confirmed that the EU plans to expand this policy next year to Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina once they too meet the necessary conditions.
Leigh also addressed the difficult bilateral issues between the countries of the region which need to be addressed prior to accession, which touch upon issues of reconciliation, border delineation, refugees and minorities. He expressed particular concern over these issues, since "the pace of approaching the EU is set by the pace of a country's reforms. Bilateral issues intrude on this pace,' since the country's leaders are not solely accountable for those obstacles. It is easy to see how the accession process has been undermined by bilateral issues in the conflicts between Croatia and Slovenia on borders; between Greece and Macedonia on its name; and between Turkey and Cyprus on its still-divided state.
Kosovo's status is of particular concern, since only 22 of 27 member states have recognized its independence from Serbia. Yet, despite predictions to the contrary, Kosovo's transition to an independent state has been relatively well-received in the region, a development which, in Leigh's view, can be explained in part by the European umbrella. Cautioning against complacency, Leigh noted that the EU is planning to publish a feasibility study outlining ways that Kosovo could "draw closer to the European Union as part of our broad policy for the region."
Leigh concluded by remarking that the fifth enlargement occurred at too high a level, and that EU leaders neglected to explain to the public why the EU was expanding. This oversight led to the failure of the Constitutional Treaty and has delayed the Lisbon Treaty. To that end, he highlighted the European Union's reinforced strategy on enlargement based on the "3 Cs": a strong Commitment to candidate states based on Conditionality, as well as the necessity of effective Communication with the public, both in the EU member states and the candidates.