The article was originally published by the South China Morning Post and is reposted here with the permission of the author.

The communications of the European Commission rarely receive international media attention, even on days when they do not have to compete with a possible pandemic and the impeachment drama of an American president. It has to be admitted that the eight-page document released on February 5, regarding a new system for European Union accession negotiations, does not stir much excitement.

The gist of the proposal is to offer credible EU accession prospects to the Western Balkans. It also provides a glimpse of the EU’s new stress on geopolitics.

The immediate need for such a reassertion was created last October, when French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed the initiation of EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Macron insisted that the EU enlargement process needs a profound rethinking and reform, as the current format does not work. The new proposal aims to allay French concerns by setting more stringent membership criteria while keeping the appetite of the Western Balkan countries for EU membership.

The revised process maintains the carrot of membership by strengthening the credibility and predictability of the process, while adding sticks – sanctions on those who fail to meet the demands of Brussels.

In the history of the EU enlargement process, each new round led to new and more stringent conditions. When Britain, Denmark and Ireland joined the then European Communities in 1973, their accession was based on purely economic criteria. The subsequent Mediterranean round in the 1980s, which brought Greece, Portugal and Spain into the fold, for the first time specified democracy as a condition of membership. At the 1993 European Council in Copenhagen, the EU outlined free markets, democratic governance, and the adoption of the whole body of EU law as the stepping stones to membership.

In line with the Copenhagen criteria, there came a “big bang” enlargement of EU membership from 2004 to 2007, when former Soviet satellites such as Poland and Hungary were integrated alongside Malta and Cyprus.

The new methodology follows in this tradition. Yet, while the overhaul of the political, economic and human rights criteria for accession is not surprising, the proposal also outlines strategic convergence with the EU as a key criterion for membership.

Notably, the proposal states that candidate countries will also be evaluated annually on their ability to “tackle malign third-country influence”. This phrase, which is not spelt out anywhere else in the document, is highly open to interpretation.

Specifically, which “third country” does the EU have in mind? Now, the list of possibilities is not short. Russia is probably at the top of the list, owing to its overt and covert meddling in European affairs. Turkey is unlikely to be far behind, not only for very similar reasons but also because of the long frustration of its EU membership aspirations.

However, some in Brussels clearly have China in mind – especially with regard to the Western Balkans.

In the past years, the EU has consistently criticised those countries for their active participation in China’s cooperation mechanism with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Now known as “17+1”, this initiative has drawn the ire of the European Commission and key EU members such as France and Germany. A number of European politicians have referred to the participants in “17+1” as Trojan horses undermining the strategic unity of Europe.The involvement of the Western Balkan countries in this initiative was instrumental to the EU’s decision to label China a “systemic rival” in 2019. Pointing to Beijing’s growing influence in Europe, Macron declared at the time that the “period of European naivety” about China should come to an end.It is likely that the criterion of strategic compliance with the EU would become one of the most contested grounds in the annual review of candidate countries, and not only because of the fuzzy definition of the concept. Interpretations of “malign influence” are likely to differ among the member states, as evidenced by the European divergence on Huawei’s involvement in the construction of European 5G networks. Thus, Chinese investment might become a make-or-break condition of EU accession for the Western Balkan states.

Under Ursula Von der Leyen’s “geopolitical” European Commission, the EU has begun to formulate new policies, proposing its own spheres of influence. And while the new enlargement system is a convenient stick to hit those candidate countries perceived to be getting too close to Beijing, the EU seems headed towards a more confrontational stance with China.