The European Council has reached an agreement on opening accession talks with Macedonia and Albania, to begin in June 2019 if reforms continue to deliver concrete results. The European Commission, the European Parliament, and other member states including Greece gave a green light to the process despite initial opposition voiced by France and the Netherlands.
Emmanuel Macron set out the French position on enlargement at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia in May, stating that there could be no enlargement before a deepening of the European Union itself. This move may have been related to worries about populist parties within his own country. But this intervention was very much in contradiction to his speech at the Sorbonne last year, where he made a strong case for a united Europe led by a clear vision which does not back down in the face of anti-European forces. It seems that Paris’s preference for delaying the opening of talks with Skopje and Tirana has fallen victim either to unfortunate incoherence or fears of populist politics at home.
What happened between the vision in Sorbonne and the slammed door in Sofia has barely anything to do with the Western Balkans themselves, especially considering Macedonia’s remarkable achievements in just the last year. It has to do with domestic French populist parties and the Republicans turning Balkans enlargement into an election issue ahead of the 2019 European parliament poll. However, pledging to block Macedonia and Albania is unlikely to move any votes. Moreover, this strategy of appeasement of populist and far-right parties has never proved effective for pro-European or centre-right parties, implementers of these strategies themselves, be it several decades ago or today. Instead, it jeopardises a government that has bet its entire credibility on moving forward towards the EU and NATO. Telling Skopje that negotiations may open in June 2019 after referendum on Macedonia’s future name is reminiscent of a popular formula used in the Balkans: “We’ll vote for the opposition when they are in power.”
At the Sorbonne, Macron put the values of democracy and rule of law at the core of what he believes should be a new European project. Criticising inertia and fear of expressing pro-European ideas and values, he advocated strong, audacious, and proactive ambition as the only way to counter the populist and far-right narrative on Europe. On the Balkans, he had highlighted the strategic choice of binding the region to the EU and underlined the necessity to respect the acquis and democratic reforms. Several months later in Sofia, Macron drew a surprising distinction between a sovereign Europe and a united Europe. Sovereignty meant that the Balkans should be anchored to the EU for historical, geopolitical reasons. Yet unity meant that there can be no enlargement before the EU itself is reformed.
This is a very debatable argument considering that the process is at least a decade old, and so there was little point in the president attempting to block the simple opening of negotiations, paving the way to a long and demanding process. Besides, as far as the legal and political balance of the EU and its functioning are concerned, Macedonia, or Montenegro, – countries of respectively fewer than two and less than one million people – can hardly be compared to Turkey or Romania. Has anyone noticed a significant change to the internal balance since Croatia became an EU member in 2013? Macron also stated that: “it would not be serious to open a new enlargement process today without conditions”, adding that the Commission has pointed to specific issues like corruption and migration on which much more should be done. It ought to be noted though that no enlargement process has ever opened nor concluded without conditions. Moreover, he stated that countries working hard, like Macedonia, should be rewarded.
It was never a given that enlargement would naturally find its place in Macron’s design for a more democratic Europe. There was hope, especially regarding the positive change in Macedonia, that enlargement policy would be more political, based on values, along with Macron’s aspirations for Europe, against illiberal regimes influence within and out of the EU. Unfortunately, this did not materialise. Thus, what is still lacking is an enlargement policy designed after Macron’s own vision of Europe developed in Sorbonne, in order to show, with his own words, that enlargement can go hand in hand with a renewed European ambition, provided it is defined.
It could be argued, from a liberal perspective, that countries in a situation of illiberalism and state capture, where the hegemonic party in power has undermined the rule of law and established a fully clientelistic model, should not move closer to the EU, provided it works the other way around for pro-EU governments like the Macedonian one, hence Belgrade’s deafening silence over the name deal reached by Skopje and Athens. But this approach is not even discussed openly. Furthermore, Skopje’s name deal referendum may fail this autumn, which would entail the government’s resignation. Likewise, the 2019 election in Greece could bring to power a government opposed to any deal with Skopje. Therefore, blocking the opening of negotiations is a very risky move for no political gain for Macron, for pro-EU parties and for the EU itself. On the contrary, it could very well backfire, only to the benefit of illiberal forces in the region backed by Moscow.
The Balkans is the only region where the EU has the power to design a new reality, but it is also the region where Europe has failed the most. The referendum in Macedonia this autumn and election in Bosnia in October should be closely followed given potentially negative outcomes. In the wake of a perilous NATO summit considering the views of Donald Trump on the alliance, if Europe is to become an autonomous and powerful actor, including from a military standpoint, along Macron’s ambition, it starts in the Balkans.
Loïc Tregoures, PhD, is a lecturer in conflict analysis at the Catholic Institute of Paris.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.