At the recent at the EU summit on 17-18 October, the hot topic was the rejection of opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. But does the decision represent a major setback for the credibility of the EU as a geopolitical actor? Rafael Guillermo López Juárez thinks it may well be.
Did the EU brake its promise? It had assured North Macedonia and Albania that, if they complied with what was asked of them, talks would be opened for their future accession. And indeed, the result of this process was by no means their immediate entry into the Union, but the start of a long road to membership that could last for years. However, the intransigent opposition of France, supported by Denmark and the Netherlands, has now prevented it for now. French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Brussels acknowledging Skopje’s (painful) efforts, but promising to block their path nonetheless. It seemed that there would be no justice for a country that had the courage to change its name in exchange for the start of EU negotiations, putting an end to a conflict with Greece that had lasted for decades.
The Albanian dossier was different as several leaders were not satisfied with the progress of reforms in the country. Denmark and the Netherlands proposed splitting up the bids of the two countries, which were artificially linked, but Germany, Greece and Italy refused, considering that both countries had a similar demographic reality. In the end, national leaders only managed to postpone the decision until May 2020, when the next EU-Western Balkans summit will take place in Zagreb. Croatia, the hosting country, will be holding by then the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers.
Not keeping promises
Both the European Commission and the European Parliament had recommended a favourable course of action. Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing President of the Commission, described the decision as a “serious historical mistake” and was “very disappointed,” as was Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Austrian accession commissioner Johannes Hahn denounced on Twitter that “the EU has not kept its promises due to internal problems.” As we said, the countries expressing doubts with Albania were Denmark, the Netherlands and France, as well as Spain. North Macedonia, on the other hand, had the almost unanimous approval of all Member States. With the exception of France.
Supporters of opening the talks argued that both countries had met the criteria requested by the EU and that the credibility of the Union would have been undermined if the effort they had made had been disregarded. In Albania, the aim was to dismiss corrupt judges. In the case of North Macedonia, it was requested a name change in the Constitution. Fears that a refusal could have jeopardised the future of the entire Balkan region were widespread. Not in vain have Russia, China, Turkey and the Arab countries been investing time and money in political influence in the region.
The Macron Factor
There has been a belief that Emmanuel Macron had been hurt over the rejection by the European Commission of his candidate Sylvie Goulard for the role of Commissioner which could have been a direct result of him dynamiting the Spitzenkandidaten process in June and imposing Ursula von der Leyen on the European Parliament as the next Commission president. Many believe that the Parliament felt this move as treason, as von der Leyen had not stood for election, a cross that she could always carry with her.
He also came to Brussels a little bit downhearted as the reforms he had always wanted to carry out in the EU in order to unblock the decision-making process were not yet up and running. Compared with countries that consider that Europe should only be an economic and monetary union, Macron has always proposed a more political, federal Europe, with room to make decisions, having a strong say in the world and managing autonomously its fiscal capacity. But what an irony of fate was to find out that the leader who came to develop such political ambition became the main obstacle to these objectives, at least for now.
At the press conference, it became clear that the issue was not whether Albania or North Macedonia had done their homework. Macron stressed that no country was ready, but he also argued that the main obstacle was that the accession process itself needed to be reformed first and that Europe needed to be reformed before accommodating any new member, a legitimate but ill-considered overlook of the question at hand.
Of course, the French president knows very well the challenges of the Balkans, but other internal debates, regarding La République were more pressing. Yes, we refer to his public opinion. Although in some other European countries this kind of topic goes rather unnoticed, in some others the issue of EU enlargement is sensitive. This is especially true in the wealthiest countries of Western Europe, not only because of migratory flows, but because of fundamental issues such as the democratic deficit in Poland and Hungary, the problems of institutional corruption in Romania and Bulgaria and the increasingly strong feeling that Eastern European countries do not share the same code of individual freedoms and “European values,” whether this is true or not, which often matters little.
That’s the way it is in France: there is not a single day without talk on the radio about immigration, the Muslim veil or integration. This is why, in a country where the European debate is actually central in national politics and where citizens are wary of the Union because it looks unreformable, Emmanuel Macron’s positions in Brussels are particularly relevant. Thus, the president, having his hands tied, had no alternative but to be reluctant as a way of forcing the EU to reform its methods and, above all, as a way of avoiding giving an emboldened French far-right another argument to oppose him. In this context, the EU’s credibility and the Skopje government’s efforts to save its democratisation process were completely overshadowed.
What’s behind the negations?
We’ve come a long way. For a long time, when North Macedonia was called Macedonia, its entry into the EU was unthinkable. Greece spent decades blocking any attempt with the excuse that its name carried unjustified claims to Greek territory and cultural heritage. The atmosphere only changed when Zoran Zaev came to power in 2017, a socialist politician who prioritised negotiations with Alexis Tsipras’ Greece for the final resolution of the conflict. They did so responsibly, despite the fact that their public opinions were not convinced and that the political opposition of the conservative parties was fierce. In Greece, the agreement with Alexis Tsipras cost him the government. In North Macedonia, the reform passed only because it was promised that the country would advance on the European path.
The Western Balkans have always been a coveted territory. While the EU has been hesitant and divided in the Balkans, other powers have taken advantage to multiply their influence. The region, for example, is a key player in China’s trade development strategy, with millions of euros invested in projects across a territory where funding is urgently needed. Also, to name but one, it is no secret that Russia and Serbia have fruitful military and economic cooperation. What is more, notwithstanding the fact that the EU is by far the biggest foreign investor in Serbia and although a majority of Serbians still wishes to undertake the EU accession path, Russian influence is beginning to take root in Serbian hearts thanks to a public opinion that, feeling hurt by the European strategy, finds shelter in the Russian rhetoric.
Moreover, the governments of the whole region, in need of infrastructures to relaunch their economic growth, have also welcomed warmly the countries of the Persian Gulf. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, the fact that mosques and Saudi charities have been flourishing for years, some of which, by the way, are behind the manifest increase in salafism in the last decade, especially in Kosovo and Bosnia.
The strategic importance of the region is, for all these reasons, indisputable and its stability should be a priority for the EU, which is why the Union is trying to combat the growing weight of these powers with the promise of accession, which has not been fulfilled on this occasion. Such blatant gestures often leave an aftertaste of dissatisfaction that feeds Eurosceptic rhetoric and leaves an emotional void in public opinion in the area.
“Let me be very clear: North Macedonia and Albania are not to blame for this,” the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, clarified, “please do not give up. I understand your frustration because you did your part and we did not.” Similarly, Ursula von der Leyen made it clear that for her it was “very important” that they should receive “a positive signal from us,” something that did not happen.
Member states’ decision will certainly come with consequences. For now, Zoran Zaev has been forced to call “immediate” early elections, stating that it was time to give voters a say on the direction the country is to take. He himself had had to convince a reluctant public opinion saying that, had the name changed, they would have been rewarded. Now, he will have a hard time finding arguments to win the elections. “We have fulfilled a great dream by becoming a member of NATO and we will succeed in bringing European values to this country when the EU is ready,” he said.
On the other hand, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama tried to counter criticism on the grounds that EU’s final rejection had been the result of internal EU disagreements, unrelated to the progress achieved by the country. The Foreign Minister went a step further by welcoming new advancements of EU “strategic rivals” in the Western Balkans.
Finally, even though guessing is always misleading, new scenarios seem nevertheless more plausible than ever. After all, Albania has no reason not to pursue its alternative goal of national unification. Nor does Serbia, which at some point will be encouraged to annex the Serbian enclave of northern Kosovo to prevent it from joining a large Albanian national state. This, in turn, could create a generational opportunity for Bosnian Serbs to attempt independence by offering their territory to Serbia as compensation for Kosovo’s loss. A united Albania could create a new geopolitical opportunity for North Macedonian Albanians, who will want to join their territory to this new state. It would be the return of ethnic nationalism, of the deceiving dream of pure states.
These events may never happen, but it depends largely on the EU. Right now, the only thing that can be said is that, in geopolitical terms, Europe may have made a mistake. The message conveyed is not one of optimism. Emmanuel Macron may need to rethink his strategy in Brussels if he does not want to become irrelevant.