What many in the Western Balkans feared happened last month. France, tacitly backed by the Netherlands and Denmark, vetoed E.U. accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
Now, ideas are circulating that suggest replacing membership prospects with vague alternative processes. Such proposals fall short of eventual full membership and are as problematic as no enlargement. They must be rejected.
France’s refusal to let North Macedonia and Albania start talks on joining the E.U. shocked the region. In North Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had extensively bet on accession talks when he signed his country’s name agreement with Greece. After France’s veto, he called snap elections for April next year.
President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, that received the E.U. candidate status in 2012, expressed his suspicion that France’s move was a signal to the entire region that there is no path to membership in the foreseeable future. He used the occasion to tout his openness to do business with other foreign players. At the end of October, Serbia moved forward with its announced decision and signed a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Russia and China: Growing Influence
Russia and China seem ready to exploit Brussels’ hesitation to keep its commitment to opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. This is a setback that harms the E.U.’s credibility and leverage in the region.
China appears eager to continue increasing its presence in the Balkans through economic investments. Russia, on the other hand, used the E.U.’s reluctance to ironically invite Albania and North Macedonia into its Eurasian Economic Union. In a theatrical stunt more than a meaningful proposal, the Russian representative to the E.U. implied in a not so subtle way that Albania and North Macedonia would find more understanding with Moscow than with Brussels.
The idea that the Western Balkans’ future would be within the E.U. has been the pillar of Brussels’ policy since the 2003 E.U.-Western Balkans summit in Greece. At the time, and still, the Western Balkans faced considerable challenges with corruption, democratization, and economic development. The promises and principles explicitly stated during the 2003 summit have been the region’s key transformative tools.
Call for EU Reforms
France’s vetoing the talks with Albania and North Macedonia throws up many questions. What were President Emmanuel Macron’s expectations and considerations? What did he want to achieve through a position vehemently opposed by nearly all other member states? Did he not foresee the implications of the decision that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called a “grave historic mistake”?
President Macron and other French representatives have called for meaningful E.U. reforms – including transforming the accession process – before moving forward with enlargement. But many fear that France wants to stop enlargement altogether. Some recent reports suggest that France was flouting the idea of replacing full membership with a “special partnership” between the E.U. and the Western Balkans. As compensation, the countries would receive financial support, access to European markets, and other benefits.
Press conference follow. #GAC: “Regret very much that Member States could not take a decision on opening #accession negotiations with #NorthMacedonia and #Albania. Not a moment of glory for #Europe – it’s the third time in 16 months that we are discussing this important issue!1/3 pic.twitter.com/2FtO01S1fP
— Johannes Hahn (@JHahnEU) October 15, 2019
The French Ambassador to Serbia, Jean Louis Falconi, negated this alternative privileged partnership and stated that France is still committed to the full membership for the Western Balkans. But, while elaborating, he problematically described a process that did not define the conditions for full membership. He explained that the current accession process does not yield enough results and argued the need for an improved and reversible process.
In a non-assuring way, Ambassador Falconi supported the idea of a process that would give Western Balkan countries the possibility to sit at the same table as the member states when they finished negotiations in certain areas.
Problems of Incomplete Membership
Such vague alternative processes, that do not define the conditions for full membership, are deeply problematic. As skeptics of enlargement, think tanks, and pundits engage in the exploration of alternatives that eschew full membership, the concept of rejecting the Balkans is justified and rationalized.
The idea of excluding the Western Balkans is not new but seems to be gaining traction. These developments give reason for great concern.
The Balkans venerated the E.U. as the most democratic and transformative project of modern history. It has served as an inspiration for many people that experienced decades of repression under communist rule and the tragic ethno-nationalist conflicts of the 1990s.
Those eager to change this perception and transform Brussels’ perspective are doing a disservice not only to Balkan countries but also to the E.U. itself. Whoever sees the region as an appendix rather than an integral part of Europe should be reminded of the wise words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If you look at things geostrategically and also look at the map then there will only be a truly united Europe with the states of the Western Balkans.”Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.