Today’s Communication sets out the Commission’s proposals to strengthen the EU accession process. It aims to make the enlargement process more credible, predictable, dynamic and subject to stronger political steering. This will reinvigorate the accession process and make it more effective, enhancing credibility and trust on both sides.
What is new in these proposals? How did the enlargement methodology change?
The revised enlargement methodology builds on four main principles
Candidate countries need to deliver on the reforms they promised, and EU needs to deliver when they do.
Stronger political steer:
Engaging with the candidates at top level through regular summits and ministerial meetings.
Member States will be involved more strongly and have better opportunities to monitor and review the process.
A more dynamic process:
Clustering chapters will allow for more thorough political discussions on thematic areas and to identify opportunities for early alignment and integration into EU policies.
The cluster on fundamentals (rule of law, economic criteria and public administration reform) will take a central role and sufficient progress will need to be achieved before other clusters can be opened.
Predictability for both sides:
Defining more clearly the conditions for candidate countries. Providing them with clear incentives if key reforms successfully implemented – closer integration of the country with the European Union.
Clear incentives: supporting solid and accelerated economic development and tangible benefits for citizens in order to provide the environment that allows for the substantial reforms needed, e.g. increased investment opportunities, work for accelerated integration and “phasing-in” to individual EU policies, the EU markets and EU programmes, while ensuring a level playing field and strengthened regional integration.
More decisive measures sanctioning any serious or prolonged stagnation or even backsliding: from slowing down negotiations, to adjusting funding and withdrawing benefits of closer integration.
Is the Commission changing its enlargement policy?
The conditions to join the EU are set out in the Treaty on European Union and by the Copenhagen criteria, which are very clear, and do not change. The proposals will improve the process and make it more comprehensive.
Previous enlargement countries did not have to fulfil all these conditions. You are moving the goalposts and delaying the accession process.
No, the revised methodology is based on the same, well-established criteria to join the EU. These were defined already in 1993 at the European Council in Copenhagen: need to have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU; the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership.
In the case of the Western Balkans, additional conditions for membership were set out in the ‘Stabilisation and Association Process’, mostly relating to regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations.
There are no shortcuts to membership. It is true that the accession process today is more demanding than in the past. But this is because the process has been made more rigorous to help the countries tackle the more difficult challenges they face in their reform efforts.
How do you asses the progress of enlargement countries?
Each year the Commission adopts its “Enlargement package” – which includes a Communication on enlargement (setting out the way forward and taking stock of the situation in the enlargement countries) and individual country Reports. In the Reports, the Commission presents its detailed assessment of the state of play in each candidate country and potential candidate, what has been achieved over the last year, and set out guidelines on reform priorities. The assessments are based on the Commission’s regular monitoring of the situation in the countries, input from the EU Delegations on the ground and from a variety of other sources, including: contributions from the EU Member States, European Parliament reports, contributions from the governments of the countries, and information from various international and non-governmental organisations.
How does the EU support reforms in the enlargement countries?
The EU helps the countries that wish to become members with political, financial and technical support. This makes it easier for them to make progress in meeting the well-established requirements of membership, in particular implementing far-reaching reforms and aligning with EU rules and regulations.
The European Union provides the countries with financial support through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance. From 2014-2020, the EU dedicated EUR 11.7 billion for this purpose, with continued funding foreseen for 2021-2027. The EU and the national authorities decide on the areas where to invest the funds.
The Commission and Member States also support the enlargement countries’ public administrations with technical assistance to align, apply and enforce EU legislation as well as facilitating the sharing of EU best practices. This is done inter alia through TAIEX / Twinning workshops, expert missions and study visits.
What does the revised methodology mean for the fundamentals, in particular the rule of law?
We propose a balanced approach, which will lead to a more dynamic and more credible process, while putting an even stronger focus on the core role of fundamental reforms essential for the EU path. Rule of law will become even more central in the accession negotiations, for example through anti-corruption work being main-streamed in relevant chapters. There will be a stronger focus on the fundamentals of functioning of democratic institutions, public administration reform and supporting economic reforms. Progress on the fundamental reforms will determine the overall pace of negotiations.
Will public administration reform now be part of the accession negotiations as a chapter? What does this mean in practice?
The Commission’s proposal reconfirms the central role that public administration reform plays among the fundamentals of the enlargement process. These fundamentals will become even more central in the accession negotiations. Negotiations in the area of fundamentals will be opened first and closed last and progress on the fundamentals will determine the overall pace of negotiations. In this sense, public administration reform will be on an equal footing with the other fundamentals.
Will the new methodology be applied only to North Macedonia and Albania, or also Serbia and Montenegro?
The new methodology will be formalised into the negotiating frameworks for North Macedonia and Albania .
Many of the proposals could also be attractive for Serbia and Montenegro, as they can contribute to making the process more dynamic, predictable and credible for them as well. Serbia and Montenegro will be able to opt in if they wish. The negotiating frameworks already in place for Montenegro and Serbia would however not need to be changed.
The fact that a revised methodology will be the basis for the new negotiating frameworks will it mean there will be a two-speed process for accession: easier for the ones already negotiating and more difficult for Albania and North Macedonia?
The accession process is equally difficult for any candidate, but in different ways, since challenges differ. Negotiating frameworks are never identical. They take into account the context of each candidate and spell out the way negotiations are conducted. The speed of progress towards accession to the EU does not depend on the negotiations frameworks but on the political will of the country to implement the necessary reforms so the country meets the EU’s accession criteria. The conditions to join the EU are the same for all countries and the speed depends on the time they take to meet the criteria.
But by proposing today adjustments to the methodology we aim at better supporting their reform process: through the clustering of chapters, clearer criteria, and stronger political steer, our objective is to help the countries to move faster on reforms.
What about Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo? What does this mean for them?
The EU has repeatedly confirmed its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The Stabilisation and Association Process remains the common framework of relations with the two.
In its conclusions of December 2019, the Council welcomed the Commission’s Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application to EU membership. The Council urged executive and legislative bodies at all levels of government to start addressing the key priorities identified in the opinion, in line with the legitimate aspirations of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to advance towards the European Union.
The EU has welcomed the appointment of the new Government in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is ready to work with the authorities on the implementation of the 14 priorities identified, paving the way towards the candidate status.
For Kosovo, it is important that the new government resumes work on reforms, including the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and building on the European Reform Agenda, to deliver tangible results for citizens.
The Commission looks forward to working with the new Government in Kosovo and to assisting in its European Reform Agenda, focusing on strengthening the rule of law, public administration and the economy. Is it also important that Kosovo abolishes the tariffs and renews its engagement in regional initiatives and cooperation.
What are the next steps now?
The Commission hopes the Member States will endorse the proposal, in parallel with the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, ahead of the European Union-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb on 6-7 May, for which the Commission will also put forward an economic and investment development plan for the Western Balkans region. If the Council takes a positive decision in this sense, it will task the Commission with presenting draft negotiating frameworks with the two countries. These will further spell out the proposals set out in the revised methodology.
Advancing the EU social market economy: adequate minimum wages for workers
The Commission today proposes an EU Directive to ensure that the workers in the Union are protected by adequate minimum wages allowing for a decent living wherever they work. When set at adequate levels, minimum wages do not only have a positive social impact but also bring wider economic benefits as they reduce wage inequality, help sustain domestic demand and strengthen incentives to work. Adequate minimum wages can also help reduce the gender pay gap, since more women than men earn a minimum wage. The proposal also helps protect employers that pay decent wages to workers by ensuring fair competition.
The current crisis has particularly hit sectors with a higher share of low-wage workers such as cleaning, retail, health and long-term care and residential care. Ensuring a decent living for workers and reducing in-work poverty is not only important during the crisis but also essential for a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today’s proposal for adequate minimum wages is an important signal that also in crisis times, the dignity of work must be sacred. We have seen that for too many people, work no longer pays. Workers should have access to adequate minimum wages and a decent standard of living. What we propose today is a framework for minimum wages, in full respect of national traditions and the freedom of social partners. Improving working and living conditions will not only protect our workers, but also employers that pay decent wages, and create the basis for a fair, inclusive and resilient recovery.”
Executive Vice-President for an Economy that Works for People, Valdis Dombrovskis, said: “It is important to ensure that also low wage workers benefit from the economic recovery. With this proposal we want to make sure that workers in the EU earn a decent living wherever they work. Social partners have a crucial role to play in negotiating wages nationally and locally. We support their freedom to negotiate wages autonomously, and where this is not possible, we give a framework to guide Member states in setting minimum wages.”
Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: “Almost 10% of workers in the EU are living in poverty: this has to change. People who have a job should not be struggling to make ends meet. Minimum wages have to play catch up with other wages which have seen growth in recent decades, leaving minimum wages lagging behind. Collective bargaining should be the gold standard across all Member States. Ensuring adequate minimum wages is written in black and white in Principle 6 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which all Member States have endorsed, so we are counting on their continued commitment.”
A framework for minimum wages in full respect of national competences and traditions
Minimum wages exist in all EU Member States. 21 countries have statutory minimum wages and in 6 Member States (Denmark, Italy, Cyprus, Austria, Finland and Sweden) minimum wage protection is provided exclusively by collective agreements. Yet, in the majority of Member States, workers are affected by insufficient adequacy and/or gaps in the coverage of minimum wage protection. In light of this, the proposed Directive creates a framework to improve the adequacy of minimum wages and for access of workers to minimum wage protection in the EU. The Commission’s proposal fully respects the subsidiary principle: it sets a framework for minimum standards, respecting and reflecting Member States’ competences and social partners’ autonomy and contractual freedom in the field of wages. It does not oblige Member States to introduce statutory minimum wages, nor does it set a common minimum wage level.
Countries with high collective bargaining coverage tend to have a lower share of low-wage workers, lower wage inequality and higher minimum wages. Therefore, the Commission proposal aims at promoting collective bargaining on wages in all Member States.
Countries with statutory minimum wages should put in place the conditions for minimum wages to be set at adequate levels. These conditions include clear and stable criteria for minimum wage setting, indicative reference values to guide the assessment of adequacy and regular and timely updates of minimum wages. These Member States are also asked to ensure the proportionate and justified use of minimum wage variations and deductions and the effective involvement of social partners in statutory minimum wage setting and updating.
Finally, the proposal provides for improved enforcement and monitoring of the minimum wage protection established in each country. Compliance and effective enforcement is essential for workers to benefit from actual access to minimum wage protection, and for businesses to be protected against unfair competition. The proposed Directive introduces annual reporting by Member States on its minimum wage protection data to the Commission.
President von der Leyen promised to present a legal instrument to ensure that the workers in our Union have a fair minimum wage at the start of her mandate and repeated her pledge in her first State of the Union address on 16 September 2020.
The right to adequate minimum wages is in Principle 6 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which was jointly proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council on behalf of all Member States, and the European Commission in Gothenburg in November 2017.
Today’s proposal for a Directive is based on Article 153 (1) (b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) on working conditions. It follows a two-stage consultation of social partners carried out in accordance with Article 154 TFEU. The Commission’s proposal will now go to the European Parliament and the Council for approval. Once adopted, Member States will have two years have to transpose the Directive into national law.
Commission proposes new ‘Single Window’ to modernise and streamline customs controls
The European Commission has today proposed a new initiative that will make it easier for different authorities involved in goods clearance to exchange electronic information submitted by traders, who will be able to submit the information required for import or export of goods only once. The so-called ‘EU Single Window Environment for Customs‘ aims to enhance cooperation and coordination between different authorities, in order to facilitate the automatic verification of non-customs formalities for goods entering or leaving the EU.
The Single Window aims to digitalise and streamline processes, so that businesses will ultimately no longer have to submit documents to several authorities through different portals. Today’s proposal is the first concrete deliverable of the recently adopted Action Plan on taking the Customs Union to the next level. It launches an ambitious project to modernise border controls over the coming decade, in order to facilitate trade, improve safety and compliance checks, and reduce the administrative burden for companies.
Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner for the Economy, said: “Digitalisation, globalisation and the changing nature of trade present both risks and opportunities when it comes to goods crossing the EU’s borders. To rise to these challenges, customs and other competent authorities must act as one, with a more holistic approach to the many checks and procedures needed for smooth and safe trade. Today’s proposal is the first step towards a fully paperless and integrated customs environment and better cooperation between all authorities at our external borders. I urge all Member States to play their part in making it a true success story.”
Each year, the Customs Union facilitates the trade of more than €3.5 trillion worth of goods. Efficient customs clearance and controls are essential to allow trade to flow smoothly while also protecting EU citizens, businesses and the environment. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of having agile yet robust customs processes, and this will become ever more important as trade volumes keep on increasing and new challenges related to digitalisation and e-commerce, such as new forms of fraud, emerge.
Currently, the formalities required at the EU’s external borders often involve many different authorities in charge of different policy areas, such as health and safety, the environment, agriculture, fisheries, cultural heritage and market surveillance and product compliance. As a result, businesses have to submit information to several different authorities, each with their own portal and procedures. This is cumbersome and time-consuming for traders and reduces the capacity of authorities to act in a joined-up way in combatting risks.
Today’s proposal is the first step in creating a digital framework for enhanced cooperation between all border authorities, through one Single Window. The Single Window will enable businesses and traders to provide data in one single portal in an individual Member State, thereby reducing duplication, time and costs. Customs and other authorities will then be able to collectively use this data, allowing for a fully coordinated approach to goods clearance and a clearer overview at EU level of the goods that are entering or leaving the EU.
This is an ambitious project that will entail significant investment at both EU and Member State level, in order to be fully implemented over the next decade or so. The Commission will support Member States in this preparation, where possible, including through funding from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, to enable them to reap the full, long-term benefits of the Single Window.
The EU is the largest trading bloc in the world, accounting for 15% of the world trade. In 2018, almost 343 million customs declarations were handled by more than 2,000 EU customs offices, who collected €25.3 billion in customs duties.
The Single Window is part of the new Customs Union Action Plan, which sets out a series of measures to make EU customs smarter, more innovative and more efficient over the next four years. In her Political Guidelines, President von der Leyen announced plans for an integrated European approach to customs risk management, which supports effective controls by EU Member States. The measures will strengthen the Customs Union and enhance its ability to collect EU revenues and protect the security, health and prosperity of EU citizens and businesses.
Commission opens infringements against Cyprus and Malta for “selling” EU citizenship
Today, the European Commission is launching infringement procedures against Cyprus and Malta by issuing letters of formal notice regarding their investor citizenship schemes also referred to as “golden passport” schemes.
The Commission considers that the granting by these Member States of their nationality – and thereby EU citizenship – in exchange for a pre-determined payment or investment and without a genuine link with the Member States concerned, is not compatible with the principle of sincere cooperation enshrined in Article 4(3) of the Treaty on European Union. This also undermines the integrity of the status of EU citizenship provided for in Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Due to the nature of EU citizenship, such schemes have implications for the Union as a whole. When a Member State awards nationality, the person concerned automatically becomes an EU citizen and enjoys all rights linked to this status, such as the right to move, reside and work freely within the EU, or the right to vote in municipal elections as well as elections to the European Parliament. As a consequence, the effects of investor citizenship schemes are neither limited to the Member States operating them, nor are they neutral with regard to other Member States and the EU as a whole.
The Commission considers that the granting of EU citizenship for pre-determined payments or investments without any genuine link with the Member States concerned, undermines the essence of EU citizenship.
The Cypriot and Maltese governments have two months to reply to the letters of formal notice. If the replies are not satisfactory, the Commission may issue a Reasoned Opinion in this matter.
Investor citizenship schemes allow a person to acquire a new nationality based on payment or investment alone. These schemes are different to investor residence schemes (or “golden visas”), which allow third-country nationals, subject to certain conditions, to obtain a residence permit to live in an EU country.
The conditions for obtaining and forfeiting national citizenship are regulated by the national law of each Member State, subject to due respect for EU law. As nationality of a Member State is the only precondition for EU citizenship and access to rights conferred by the Treaties, the Commission has been closely monitoring investor schemes granting the nationality of Member States.
The Commission has frequently raised its serious concerns about investor citizenship schemes and certain risks that are inherent in such schemes. As mentioned in the Commission’s report of January 2019, those risks relate in particular to security, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption and the Commission has been monitoring wider issues of compliance with EU law raised by investor citizenship and residence schemes. In April 2020, the Commission wrote to the Member States concerned setting out its concerns and asking for further information about the schemes.
In a resolution adopted on 10 July 2020, the European Parliament reiterated its earlier calls on Member States to phase out all existing citizenship by investment (CBI) or residency by investment (RBI) schemes as soon as possible. As stated by President von der Leyen in the State of the Union Address of 16 September 2020, European values are not for sale.
The Commission is also writing again to Bulgaria to highlight its concerns regarding an investor citizenship scheme operated by that Member State and requesting further details. The Bulgarian government has one month to reply to the letter requesting further information, following which the Commission will decide on the next steps.
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