For over a decade, the Balkan states of North Macedonia and Albania have endeavoured to become member states of the European Union. But during a meeting of EU general affairs ministers in Luxembourg early last week, French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that he is not keen on moving forward – yet – blocking a plan to give the two countries a target date to begin accession talks.
The issue of Balkan accession resurfaced at the EU summit in Brussels, with the topic fighting for space against hot-button matters like Brexit and the ongoing crisis in Syria. The European Commission has said both countries have made enough progress in getting their judicial standards up to snuff to merit the launching of accession talks. However, leaders again chose to prolong discussions, with plans to re-engage the topic at the next summit in Zagreb in May 2020.
This decision has put France at odds with Germany, whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is keen to expand the EU and sees the issue as promoting long-sought political stability in the region. Germany hopes that giving the Balkans a path to join the EU, even if only for the trade benefits, will strengthen European stability overall. This is the third time their request to start accession talks has been rejected.
“We clearly aren’t in a position today to stand by what we have repeatedly promised, namely the taking up of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania”, said the German Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth. “We are very disappointed”.
“I regret very much that member states could not take a decision”, said Johannes Hahn, an EU official who oversees EU membership bids. “It’s not a moment of glory for Europe… We have to restore our credibility in the Western Balkans and live up to our commitments. North Macedonia and Albania have done their homework and implemented painful reforms.”
“It’s becoming harder and harder to provide a proper explanation [for the delay]”, Hahn added. “If we agreed with our partners on steps to take and our partners are delivering, it is then our time to deliver.”
France has said that it wants the EU to become more deeply integrated within the existing bloc before the borders of the EU expand further. Their reticence is backed by the Netherlands and Denmark, who agree that accession talks should be halted until the EU revamps its whole approach to enlargement – though the Netherlands have made clear that they do accept starting talks with North Macedonia, but not Albania. One major point of concern is whether the two potential members would adhere to EU norms regarding the rule of law, precisely an area in which other more recent members, like Hungary and Poland, have been backsliding.
France is also concerned about the region’s ability to tackle crime and corruption, which are major issues – especially in Albania. This comes at a time when the EU is facing a myriad of challenges, namely Brexit, the rise of China, Russia’s threat to European security, and global climate change.
“These countries will be part of the European Union one day… but it is too early to open the legal process towards enlargement”, said an official from the President’s office. France’s apprehension includes the belief that the current enlargement process is too inefficient and needs reform before more member states join the club, referring to it as an “endless soap opera”.
“We need a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process, a real credibility and a strategic vision of who we are and our role”, Macron told a news conference.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the executive European Commission, has called France’s decision a “historic error”. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte added, “We had to start membership talks, I’m very disappointed.” Outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the EU gathering, believes a mistake has been made.
There is no doubt Tusk is especially disappointed. Last month, in a visit to both North Macedonia and Albania, Tusk had urged the bloc’s members to back entry talks with the Balkan states. He praised North Macedonia for resolving its frozen conflict with Greece by changing its name, establishing its friendship treaty with Bulgaria, and aiding in Europe’s migration crisis.
“These achievements are truly impressive, internationally recognised and should not be wasted by the EU”, he said. “Now you [European leaders] do your share. Because North Macedonia has already done its share…Because there will be no stable and safe Europe without the integration of all the Balkans in the EU. What is at stake is our common future. And no one is doing anyone any favours here.”
The Road to Accession
Both France and Germany make viable points. While the inclusion of post-communist nations in 2004 enlarged the EU, Greece helped trigger a debt crisis in Southern Europe that nearly broke the euro, aided the rise of eurosceptic sentiment, and ultimately gave ammunition to Brexit in raising concerns about the burden of poorer nations.
Support for accession is higher in member states that more recently joined the EU, as well as in countries that have benefited from EU aid in development or to survive crisis. Conversely, it is less supported by nations who are richer, contributed the resources for such aid, and whose populations are most against enlargement efforts. While most of the states that seek to join the EU aren’t particularly wealthy, economic aid to North Macedonia and Albania is likely to be relatively low and is expected to result in a major boost in global prestige.
Florian Bieber, a Luxembourgian political scientist, warned that hitting the brakes on accession could undermine the EU’s credibility and will send negative signals to both them and prospective members. “Observers in the region see France and The Netherlands’ policy as not being fair and motivated by domestic politics and stereotypes”, Bieber said. “This undermines the EU as being a fair player and having clear criteria, especially since the commission has given the green light for negotiation.”
The topic is particularly thorny for North Macedonia. The country has fought hard to move closer to the EU and pivot away from Russia, including changing its own name to put to bed a long-standing frozen conflict with Greece. This venture involved massive expenditure to change the country’s signage and official paperwork, and only barely passed parliament, having been subject to fierce opposition from hardliners in both Greece and North Macedonia.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev travelled to Brussels for “a last attempt to lobby for an accession-talk date”, as material benefits from the name change and their push towards the EU are necessary to convince a sceptical population that all their efforts were not in vain. Failure on Europe’s end to make good on this implicit promise could push the nation – and perhaps the region – back into Russia’s arms and towards China’s influence.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama stated last Tuesday that they too would keep pursuing reforms even if the European Council refuses to open accession talks. ”For us Europe is a strong relationship”, Rama said. “We are only seeking to open the negotiations, further showing that we want to become part of the EU.” The Netherlands in particular stood against Albania’s advancement due to their problems combating corruption and organised crime.
Many other EU states expressed frustration with France’s stance. “It’s very important to give a political signal that enlargement is not dead”, said George Ciamba, Romania’s EU minister.
Even if North Macedonia and Albania get talks started soon, there is no guarantee they’ll get EU membership. Serbia, Montenegro, and Turkey are still waiting on their status to progress. Launching accession negotiations requires a unanimous vote from all 28 member states.