Have we reached the end of EU enlargement?

While it has always been quite clear that the Balkans were going to be integrated into the European Union at some point, this certainty vanished about three months ago with the French veto at an EU summit against the opening of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Macron’s “non” has serious consequences for the Balkans as well as for the European Union.

EU summit results in big disappointment

During a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the European Union on October 15th, France objected to the opening of enlargement negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and as this kind of decision is taken unanimously, blocked the two countries from starting membership talks with the EU. France stood alone against all the other EU member states regarding North Macedonia. Concerning Albania, the Netherlands and Denmark supported France’s stance to first reform the enlargement procedure and then start talks. The debate, which lasted until 2 o’clock in the morning, left most EU officials and heads of states more than unhappy with the results. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, for example, posted a message to “our Macedonian and Albanian friends” on twitter: “Don’t give up! You did your share and we didn’t. But I have absolutely no doubt that you will become full members of the European Union.” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission at the time, spoke of a “historic mistake” and the German chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed her disappointment.

Why did France’s president Emmanuel Macron veto against EU enlargement?

Macron explains his veto with his aspiration to reform the European Union accession process. His proposal of this reform has been circulating in the form of a “non-paper” for about a month now. It states that “a renewed approach should be based on 4 principles: gradual association; stringent conditions; tangible benefits; reversibility”. The Netherlands already backed up the idea of reversibility during the EU summit in October. Looking at the strength of rule of law in Serbia that has actually been fading over the past few years during the negotiation talks, it is clear, that the enlargement process needs to be reformed, but telling countries off that have completed all the necessary criteria given by the EU to start negotiations, is definitely not the best way to follow. Macron’s position might actually rather be caused by national political reasons than actual reformist thinking. By objecting to the opening of EU enlargement negotiations, he seems to prevent migration from the soon-to-be member states to France and thus avert a situation like in Britain with the “Polish plumber” discours. Nevertheless, the “non-paper” affirms the importance of close ties between the European Union and the Balkans; however, it is possible that the Balkan countries do not quite see it this way anymore after having been rejected by the EU.

A “non” with serious consequences

North Macedonia and Albania have been model students when it comes to fulfilling the requirements for starting membership negotiations. North Macedonia literally changed its name in order to be able to join the EU club. With the Prespa Agreement, North Macedonia resolved its dispute with Greece over the countries name in June 2018. Both countries also made important reforms concerning the rule of law. And still, the EU did not keep its promise. The promise of membership had long been the EU’s most powerful tool of influence in his close neighbourhood. This tool might now be lost forever as the “no” that came out of nowhere seriously damaged the EU’s credibility. The sudden change of heart of the European Union also risks to affect the political stability of the region. Right after the EU summit, North Macedonian Prime minister, Zoran Zaev, proclaimed new elections – to be held in April next year – for the Macedonian population to be able to redefine the orientation of the country, as his policies focused mainly on joining the European Union. The rejection by the EU strongly benefits the illiberal and anti-European opposition and it is probable that North Macedonia and Albania will rather turn to Russia and Turkey for support. This breach of the promise of accession might thus lead to growing influence of external powers like Russia and China who already have a growing influence in the Balkans. China, for example, has already reached out to the Balkans, which are an important transit area, within its 1+17 initiative to create infrastructure between Piraeus, Greece and Budapest, Hungary. Former European Commissioner for the EU enlargement, Johannes Hahn, has already expressed concerns of China’s growing influence in the Balkans in March this year. The EU will most likely also pay a price if the Balkans are not integrated in the European Union. Even though their integration would cause costs, especially for major contributors such as Germany and France, because of the delay in their economic development, the costs of non-accession would be even higher. If the Balkan countries do not join the EU, not only would the EU need to spend more money on border control, but the development gap between EU member states and the countries left outside would also widen, leading to migration of the Balkans population to more prosperous countries in the European Union.

So have we reached the end of EU enlargement?

Even though, according to Johannes Hahn, “without the Balkans, the EU will never be complete”, it is not looking good at the moment. Balkan countries seem to turn to other actors than the EU already. The Serbian gouvernement, which is currently in the phase of membership talks with the EU, recently signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Union although EU officials have averted Serbia that this is not compatible with EU membership. The reaction to the French veto of the heads of state of North Macedonia and Albania have understandably been of great deception. The French objection to start membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania sends a clear message of not valuing the efforts made by the countries wanting to join the EU. North Macedonia would probably never have changed its name if it weren’t for the promise of EU accession and if North Macedonia, despite this difficult and courageous step, does not even receive the modest « reward » of accession negotiations, why should Serbia seek a compromise with Kosovo, why should political elites limit their own power and strengthen the rule of law? So even if the EU wants the missing Balkan countries to join one day, they might not want to anymore because of the efforts it takes to meet the high expectations of the European Union that do not seem to be valued. If Macron’s proposal of reversibility is actually applied, the negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro might even be suspended.

Political factors in the Balkans will be decisive

So will Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo be linked to the EU by association agreements like Georgia or Ukraine or still join the EU some day? The answer to this question depends on a multitude of factors, like the orientation of the new European Commission under the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen who mentioned the Balkans in her speech she pronounced on November 27th in Strasbourg where she said that “our door remains open”. However, most of all, it depends on the political forces in the Balkans and willingness of the potential candidate states to join the EU. Merkel already mentioned that the EU might find a solution during the Croatian presidency of the Council of the EU.

By Nathalie BOCK