Euroviews. The EU's new Reform and Growth Facility for the Western Balkans still needs fixing

A performance during a group photo of EU and Western Balkan leaders at the EU-Western Balkans Summit, in Tirana, December 2022
A performance during a group photo of EU and Western Balkan leaders at the EU-Western Balkans Summit, in Tirana, December 2022 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By MEP David Lega
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

EU money shouldn't simply continue to flow, for its own sake or on the force of its own inertia, without the ability to guarantee that that money is making the positive difference intended and indeed required, MEP David Lega writes.

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€700 million — roughly the value of 10 new Swedish Gripen fighter jets — is a lot of money.

That’s the amount the EU spent from 2014 to 2020 on reforms in the Western Balkans, with little to show for it. With a new proposal now under consideration by the European Parliament — for even more funding — we simply can’t afford a repeat. EU taxpayers deserve better.

That’s why I have insisted on strong guarantees for new Western Balkans funding, including the ability to stop or even recoup payments if agreed conditions aren’t being met.

EU enlargement is in principle good for Europe and vital to the continent's long-term peace and prosperity. 

This is why, in November 2023, the European Commission adopted a major enlargement package including recommendations to open EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, to grant candidate status to Georgia and to open negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina pending certain further steps. 

The EU’s door is and must remain open to new members. This has been my position as shadow rapporteur for the forthcoming enlargement report in the European Parliament, which will help define the EU’s approach to candidate countries for the crucial years to come. 

In a world of such turmoil, and faced with powerful authoritarian actors, we cannot let our continent be divided.

But there is a "but". Even as we ensure an open path ahead — of cooperation, integration and ultimately full EU membership — for our democratic partners in the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, we must equally ensure that all EU rules and standards are fully met.

This includes high standards of good governance and financial accountability. Each of these goals — each of these guarantees to our voters — is fundamental. This isn’t just aspirational; it’s non-negotiable. It’s our high standards, after all, which allow for EU success — and which make the EU attractive — in the first place.

Spending money with no impact

All this is why I have raised concerns regarding the European Commission’s new Reform and Growth Facility for the Western Balkans, also proposed in November 2023, which will provide an additional up to €6 billion, in grants and loans, to Western Balkan countries from now till 2027. 

This package represents an increase, in fact, of more than 40% — even though the European Court of Auditors (ECA), in a 2022 report, concluded that the EU’s €700m in support to the region between 2014 and 2020 had had, in the end, virtually no impact at all in eradicating corruption or strengthening rule of law. 

For me, the bottom line is this: the EU, and EU taxpayers, simply must get more for our money. Stronger conditionality, stronger accountability, including the potential for reversibility: this is absolutely essential.
Workers begin installing a banner in the press room for an EU-Western Balkans summit at the European Council building in Brussels, December 2023
Workers begin installing a banner in the press room for an EU-Western Balkans summit at the European Council building in Brussels, December 2023AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

A January 2024 ECA report, regarding the new plan, regrets the lack of an impact assessment and the overreliance, for ensuring compliance, on the internal controls of the candidate countries themselves. 

It further warns: ‘There is a risk that the disbursement conditions ... might not be ambitious enough and that the underlying indicators might not be sufficiently clear and measurable.’ 

I can’t accept that the EU would again, as previously, run such a risk.

We must get more — and demand more

These past years have been hard for us all, across the continent. The pandemic, inflation and war have added enormous strains. 

Our friends in the Western Balkans certainly need our engagement and support. I totally agree. 

But for me, the bottom line is this: the EU, and EU taxpayers, simply must get more for our money. Stronger conditionality, stronger accountability, including the potential for reversibility: this is absolutely essential. 

Becoming a member of the EU is neither quick nor easy. Nor should it be. Nor should EU money simply continue to flow, for its own sake or on the force of its own inertia, without the ability to guarantee that that money is making the positive difference intended and indeed required.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen adjusts her headset during a news conference in Sarajevo, November 2023
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen adjusts her headset during a news conference in Sarajevo, November 2023AP Photo/Armin Durgut

That’s why I have tabled amendments in the European Parliament insisting on strong and binding new language: such as guaranteed protections of human rights, including for people with disabilities; alignment with the EU’s common foreign and security policy, including concerning sanctions against Russia; and clear and measurable benchmarks of reform, including the possibility of having EU funding withdrawn or returned in case of persistent stagnation or backsliding.

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The EU has had its ups and downs, but it is a major success story. The Single Market; free movement; defence of human rights; rule of law; a commitment to multilateralism and to free and fair trade, to strong external borders and to European security — including now, crucially, in our support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion: all this has been vitally beneficial for citizens. 

It continues to make life on our continent better. We look forward to welcoming new members, including in the Western Balkans, once they have met the agreed criteria.

Forward-looking, merit-based strategy down to the last euro

Becoming a member of the EU is neither quick nor easy. Nor should it be. 

Nor should EU money simply continue to flow, for its own sake or on the force of its own inertia, without the ability to guarantee that that money is making the positive difference intended and indeed required. 

The proposed Reform and Growth Facility for the Western Balkans is an important case in point; it isn’t ready yet to instil the confidence our citizens rightfully demand.

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We need a forward-looking, merit-based EU enlargement strategy. Every part of that formula matters. And every fighter jet. 

For the sake of EU taxpayers to whom we owe responsible stewardship — down to the last euro. 

For the sake of people with disabilities, like those I met five years ago in North Macedonia, on one of my first trips as a Member of the European Parliament, whose lives will forever be affected by reforms I helped set in motion then and which I am insisting now be constitutionally guaranteed. 

And for the sake of all citizens, in the EU, the Western Balkans, and indeed in all EU candidate countries, who are counting on the freedom and fairness that a rules-based, democratic, social-market-oriented European Union has always promised.

David Lega (Kristdemokraterna/EPP Group) is a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP), where he serves as Member of the Committee on Budgetary Control and Foreign Affairs Committee Shadow Rapporteur on Future Enlargement.

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