The European Council agreed to postpone the entrance of North Macedonia and Albania in the EU in its meeting on the 17th and 18th October. France put a veto on beginning the talks with both Balkan countries, delaying them to May 2020.
The October meeting
European leaders, including Donald Tusk judged Macron’s move as a terrible mistake which could open a likely Russian intervention in the Balkans. Macron’s veto raises questions on aspects such as North Macedonia’s internal debate following the denial of talks and the cohesiveness of EU countries. The EU enlargement process rules that all decisions taken at the General Affairs Council (GAG) require unanimous agreement between the 28 EU Member States. The proposal for the Western Balkans countries’ inclusion into the EU was put forward during the European Council meeting in Thessaloniki on 19-20 June 2003. The Balkans’ inclusion process began in 2005, with the Council having always agreed on reaffirming the stabilisation of the area as a fundamental need. Brexit got the top priority on the October meeting agenda, obscuring other crucial issues such as climate change, Turkey’s military action in Syria and EU enlargement.
While the rejection had no immediate consequences in Albania, North Macedonia faced a new set of problems such as a snap general election next April and a controversial debate between the ruling party and opposition. North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev committed his political activity into a pro-Western campaign which was enough to ratify the Prespa Agreement on 25 January 2019 that resolved the long-standing dispute with Greece over the Country’s name, changing it from Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia. The EU and NATO used the name issue as a bargaining chip to persuade North Macedonia that it was the only way to join both organizations. The name changing process represented a high-cost Macedonians were willing to pay, though squabbles inflamed across the country as the name issue was seen as an unfair compromise.
Germany was the first promoter of Balkan incorporation into the EU as shown by its efforts to deal with the 2015-2017 North Macedonian crisis. However, internal debate within the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) posed a set of conditions over Albanian integration into the EU given Albania’s high levels of corruption. The high number of Albanian asylum seekers in France provided the Elysee Palace with a further reason to object to the enlargement process. The Albanian issue affected North Macedonia’s accession too. Denmark and Holland’s resistance to enlargement emerged in 2018, as a consequence of the rise of far-right parties within the two countries. Macron’s scepticism, instead, was linked to the fear that agreeing on the enlargement would have strengthened extreme right-wing parties in the 2019 European elections.
Against the odds, in the June 2018 EU Council meeting, Germany didn’t clash with France as the Council agreed on opening the accession talks by June 2019. However, Macron’s move damaged EU reliability in honouring the enlargement commitment and confirmed European Union Member States interests in pursuing domestic policies to the detriment of EU policies.
According to Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, the accession criteria must conform to stable institutions, a functioning market economy, and the ability to take on membership obligations. A candidate country is required to carry out EU recommended reforms to comply with EU economic, judiciary, and civil rights standards. A March 2019 European Commission report reaffirmed the significant reforms North Macedonia had implemented throughout the years, complying with EU policies in terms of the justice system, anti-corruption and organised crime, intelligence services reform, and public administration. As stated in the report, North Macedonia’s progress in terms of economic growth meant that it had established a developed market economy able to compete with EU economic forces.
Soon after the October meeting, the French President said that the European Union is already facing internal issues, and allowing North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU would deepen those issues. Macron is indeed seeking substantial unity among the EU Member States so that Europe can bolster its economic relations with China in order to stand up to Washington’s economic closure. Macron’s project aims at reopening talks with Russia, thus forming a Eurasian bloc in opposition to the United States. Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t share Macron’s geopolitical plans, and further pressures in this respect may become a source of division within the European Union. Macron’s opposition to enlargement must be read under two circumstances: French public opinion fear of giving the green light to Western Balkan immigrants and of Russia wielding power over the area. Whether or not it is clear what’s behind Macron’s opening to Russia, it is sure that polls show Marine Le Pen has gained 11 points during Macron’s presidency. Although the next presidential elections are planned for 2022, today, Marine Le Pen could assure herself of a victory by 45 percent.
The immediate consequences
Germany’s dread of an additional Russian involvement in the Balkans is connected to its belief that the Kremlin would like to obstruct Western countries. In the early stages, Russia saw the inclusion of Eastern countries into the EU in a positive light as having friendly Member States in Brussels would lead to a more favourable relationship. It later changed approach towards EU enlargement. Perhaps not by chance, Putin boosted investments in North Macedonia by supplying it with oil and installing gas pipelines across the country. The Kremlin strongly opposed the Prespa Agreement by starting a quarrel with Greece and backing Greek far-right opposition parties regarding the deal with North Macedonia. As tension escalated both countries expelled diplomats in July 2018.
Meanwhile, the Macron veto caused an unavoidable chain reaction, beginning with the early elections in April in North Macedonia, and the renewed engagement of multiple actors such as Russia and Serbia in the area. Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia are ready to set up a common market inviting Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro to join them. Moreover, a Visa-free zone along the lines of “Schengen,” thus allowing free citizen movement, is expected in the near future, changing the economic structure of the Balkans.
Despite a pronounced pro-West sentiment Zoran Zaev government, the latter has openly started a dialogue with Russia by meeting with a Russian delegation headed by Russia’s Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade, Aleksei Gruzdev. Both countries are seeking to broaden cooperation. Although Zaev specified the renewed relationship with Russia is not a response to the EU refusal, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that under the threat of an imminent Russian advance at EU borders, the EU Council could tone down Macron’s wilfulness.