Macron is Gambling Away EU Influence in Balkans
France’s obstinate opposition to enlargement has put the EU’s remaining influence on its own doorstep – and its ability to shape strategic development and stability in Southeast Europe – in jeopardy.
The unilateral decision by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to block the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and – with only the support of Denmark and the Netherlands – Albania, has surprised many working with the EU. It has come as a deep shock to the Balkan region, which had hoped for reaffirmation of its EU perspective.
France initially blocked the opening of accession talks with both candidates in June 2018. At the time, a compromise was reached for a one-year postponement, based on further conditions. Many observers believed France’s reluctance to open accession negotiations was driven by election considerations, in the lead-up to the European elections in May.
This time, however, Macron blocked the prospect of accession talks without even looking at the record of the candidate countries on the conditions set last year.
Observers must now confront the fact that French reluctance is deeply rooted in an idea that Europe is already dysfunctional enough in its current configuration. France believes the EU cannot welcome new entrants and simultaneously deepen the integration that it believes the hope of future growth necessitates.
Macron has presented the fundamental argument that the entire EU enlargement process must be reformed before France will allow any country to start accession negotiations – which would then last for at least a decade.
He not only failed to offer any alternative approach for the EU to the Western Balkans, but also failed to outline which specific internal measures should be taken to prepare the EU for the inclusion of future members.
Macron’s position derails the EU’s long-standing strategy for the Balkans, which comes at a very high price for the region. France is gambling with the EU’s remaining influence on its own doorstep and its ability to shape strategic development and promote political stability in southeastern Europe.
France has long held the view that enlargement is fundamentally incompatible with deeper European integration. Growing rifts with Eastern Europe over migration and issues related to the rule of law and defense – as well as poor management of the euro crises and the blunt rejection of all proposals to deepen the currency union – have entrenched the French view that the 2004 enlargement cycle was a tremendous mistake. In hindsight, it marginalized France and blocked further integration.
But France’s willingness to sacrifice Northern Macedonia, which is now led by a pro-EU, reform-oriented government under Zoran Zaev, will be noted by all other leaders in this post-conflict region.
Some will see it as justification for an alternate strategy that plays geopolitics with non-EU powers and deals with unresolved bilateral disputes outside the EU integration framework.
Why, for example, should Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama now give up his ethno-integration strategy with Kosovo – even if it might later cause other neighboring countries, parts of which are ethnically Albanian, to break apart? Why should Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic risk domestic trouble by reaching a compromise deal that recognizes the independence of Serbia’s former province of Kosovo?
France’s message to Balkan leaders is clear: It does not matter whether your countries play along with the EU, whatever the risk of severe destabilization in the region.
The EU’s decision to keep its door closed to two Balkan countries has made the region realize that it cannot rely solely on its Western neighbors. Serbian President Vucic said the EU’s refusal to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania vindicated his own policy of forging closer ties with China and Russia. Belgrade signed a free trade deal with the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led customs union, at the end of October.
The European Commission’s President-designate, Ursula Von den Leyen, offered the new enlargement and neighborhood portfolio to a candidate from Hungary, a frontrunner in terms of democratic backsliding and authoritarianism within the EU.
Taken together, her decision, and President Macron’s to block negotiations, will encourage more transactional behavior, political adventurism, and insecurity – as well as less predictability – in the EU’s neighborhood.
The new hold on enlargement will prevent the designated leaders of EU institutions, including foreign policy High Representative Josep Borrell, from gaining the leverage in Balkan capitals that otherwise may have been possible at the start of their terms.
To limit the damage, the EU should do the following: those countries that support Balkan enlargement should engage politically with the accession countries and hopeful candidates. A special role here can be taken by Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Sweden, as well as by Central and Eastern European countries.
Second, the meeting of the European Council in December should have an in-depth discussion on the future of enlargement and task the Commission President with preparing a new approach.
Third, the European Commission should counteract France by charting a path to deeper political integration. The conference on the future of Europe proposed by Macron could possibly be a prelude to new conventions and ambitious treaty reform. Indeed, the UK decision to leave the EU and the crises in the euro area have both confirmed the need for the EU to revisit its institutional core and consider a more flexible and differentiated form of integration.
While this would require institutional and treaty reforms, it would undoubtedly address the need for stronger fiscal and political integration of the euro area, as well as facilitate acceptance of a second layer of economic and regulatory integration built around the single market and a third layer around a customs union.
These steps should be complemented by a set of voluntary arrangements on defense, migration, and other key issues. Building this new multi-layered institutional framework is not only necessary to safeguard the achievements of European integration so far. It is also the only way to reconcile the need for the EU’s further integration with the need for enlargement – and keep a European perspective for the Balkans alive. Without that, it will be difficult to maintain peace and stability there, or push back against growing external influence.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of BIRN.
This article was first published at Balkan Insight, 31 October 2019.