In February 2019, and as a consequence of the Prespes Agreement, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia officially changed its name to North Macedonia, at last putting to bed a decades-long conflict with Greece. The measure only narrowly passed referendum voting in Greece and North Macedonia, and its ratification required months of labour to change signage, license plates, passports, official stationary, and more.
The agreement, nonetheless, was seen as a massive victory for the West. It meant Greece would lift its veto on North Macedonia’s accession to both the EU and NATO.
While NATO’s 29 members signed the accession protocol with North Macedonia soon after, on February 6th, the road to joining the EU has proven much more difficult, despite Greek support. During a meeting in Poznan, Poland, early in July, EU members Poland and Germany called for more progress for the accession of Western Balkan states looking to join the bloc.
Standing in opposition was France, claiming that the EU shouldn’t be seeking to add members until it has sorted out its own issues first. Specifically, French President Emmanuel Macron has said that the EU cannot admit more members until its governance mechanisms become more efficient.
During the summit, Polish President Andrzej Duda scolded the other EU member states for the delays regarding accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. “The European Union shouldn’t treat countries this way when they are carrying out difficult reforms aimed at future integration”, Duda said, noting that the states in question had fulfilled many of the requirements necessary to facilitate accession talks.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said the country was ready to take the steps necessary to convince sceptical EU holdouts. “Reform-wise we hope to persuade France and the remainder of the European Union member states toward a positive decision and granting us to the accession negotiations. This is what I appeal for through dialogue, through discussion”, he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to play peacemaker, telling reporters that the French position isn’t necessarily in opposition to accession talks, and agreeing that the lengthy onboarding process, which can be improved and streamlined, does allow enough time for the necessary improvements to be made. “I don’t see any contradiction“,Merkel said. “We didn’t make as much progress as we wanted but France has said in recent days and weeks that it plans to strengthen its engagement in the Western Balkans and I find that good.”
“I share (French) President Macron’s view that the EU’s working mechanisms must be improved”, responded German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference at the conclusion of the Western Balkan summit. “I don’t see that as an abandonment of the accession talks.”
“I look with optimism to autumn”, Merkel continued, referring to North Macedonia and the October deadline the EU set to open accession talks with the Balkan states.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn told Reuters that he believed it would be unfair to halt accession talks. “When our partner countries deliver, the EU also has to deliver. That is a question of the credibility of the EU,” Hahn said. “We must leave no vacuum in this region by hesitant behavior, which would certainly not be used by our competitors such as Russia, Turkey or China in our interest.”
“Our collective credibility is at stake and our leverage for tough reforms across the region are equally at stake,” he told reporters.
This summit happened only one month after a meeting of European ministers in Luxembourg, which was itself one year to the day after the EU had postponed the decision to begin accession talks with the two states. At the time, they came to a unanimous agreement to take “a clear and substantive decision” no later than October.
And yet, while the EU Executive Commission recommended the talks proceed, Germany’s parliament refuses to start before September, the Dutch lower house of Parliament has outright rejected accession talks with Albania, and France wants the EU to solve its own problems before adding new members altogether.
France seems to be relying on the EU charter text, which says that future enlargement of the bloc depends both on progressive reforms of the would-be member, but also on “ensuring that the EU can maintain and deepen its own development, including its capacity to integrate new members”.
And meanwhile, newly elected European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is in favour of pushing ahead accession talks with new countries, and making a concrete offer to countries like Albania and North Macedonia. “We should open negotiations for these countries to enter the EU as soon as the European Council decides that the criteria have been fulfilled”, said von der Leyen in July.
However, the EU’s drive for enlargement has declined as anti-immigrant sentiment has risen among many voters. This exacerbated already existing frustration with the complex, and the difficult, costly, and time-consuming decision-making process as it currently stands.
However, these delays erode the EU’s credibility right when euroscepticism is on the rise, especially in the face of the Prespes Agreement that resulted in North Macedonia changing its official name for the express purpose of joining NATO and the EU. Zaev warned the EU that failure to start the process would jump-start the eurosceptic populists in his own country, and would likely affect the region as a whole.
Similarly, even as the Serbian Premier Ana Brnabic spoke of the positive aspects of integration, including the removal of regional trade barriers as part of the preparations to join the bloc, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic expressed frustration, publicly questioning the “purpose of such meetings, especially after certain European leaders say that have no intention to discuss enlargement”.
This erosion of credibility, in turn, opens up would-be members to turn to other powers, like Russia, Turkey, and China. “Russia has used a variety of instruments to exercise — often pernicious — influence in the region”, the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group said in a report. Thirteen EU member states, including Italy and Poland, are keen to get the EU to reverse the trend, as the bloc’s security and stability ultimately rely on transforming the southeastern part of the continent for the better.
“It is in the interest of the EU, if we want to keep our leverage (…) if we want show that we are a global actor, if we want to show we are serious about enlargement”, said Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak.
Making it Into the Club
Both North Macedonia and Albania are at the forefront of a larger Balkan wave seeking to join the EU. Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro all seek to open accession talks. Of the two, North Macedonia’s chances of making it in are stronger than Albania’s, and is likely to start the accession talks this year. That is because Albania, which is already a NATO member, is seen as one of the more corrupt states in Europe according to Transparency International. It’s main weakness has been failing to adequately combat money laundering.
The Balkan nations, a volatile region with patchy integration and economic growth – due to the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s – have already expressed frustration with the accession process, which is slow-going and requires them to start difficult overhauls for a chance to get in. The current EU accession timeline for Serbia and Montenegro is 2025 – and even that is very optimistic. Expressing sympathy, Polish President Andrzej Duda said “EU membership was a catalyst for Polish reforms and we want that perspective to be available for the Western Balkans. Not everybody shares this view and I’m saddened by decisions” made by EU leaders delaying accession.
The inclusion of Kosovo makes things complicated. Spain doesn’t recognise the nation, which unilaterally seceded from Serbia a decade ago. That is in part due to Spain’s own trouble with separatist movements in the Catalan region.
But the Balkans cannot remain locked out of Europe either. “It would be impossible that eighteen million Balkan citizens remain outside the European space”, said Montenegro’s Premier Dusko Markovic. “Today, it was clearly stated that the vision of enlargement is alive and that we should continue meeting our obligations” to become EU members.