Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed Albania’s and North Macedonia’s applications to join the EU. His reason for doing so is that the process for becoming an EU member state needs substantial reform. Macron is not opposed to these two nations joining the bloc in principle, but he believes profound political, economic and social changes need to happen in certain states before they join.
Furthermore, the French leader has proposed a plan to transform the bloc’s expansion mechanism, thwarting these Balkan countries’ dreams of joining the EU temporarily. Both Albania and North Macedonia have been on the bloc’s waiting list since 2014 and 2005 respectively. North Macedonia changed its name as part of a deal with Greece in 2018 to enter the EU.
The French plan for enlargement was explained in a three-page ‘non-paper’ distributed to other EU member states on November 17. If enacted, this proposal would establish a new seven-stage process for accession negotiations, which would create ‘coherent policy blocks.’ If a candidate country fails to enact significant reforms that conform to European norms, the EU would be allowed to reverse the process. EU nations are currently limited to two votes- one to start negotiations and another to formalise an agreement. Additionally, candidate nations would be allowed to receive EU funding as they progress towards the final stage of an agreement.
Benjamin Haddad, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, said Macron’s paper introduces a few useful changes. These include an increasing focus on conditionality and the rule of law.
The French leader’s reasons for opposing EU expansion are understandable. Increasing nationalism in Poland and Hungary, and growing corruption in Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia and Romania prove Brussels must get its own house in order before it accepts new nations. The West Balkan states, in general, have failed to uphold the rule of law, end trafficking and protect media freedom.
However, the French President’s decision has revealed the power struggle that lies at the heart of the European project. Macron described Bosnia, another candidate state, as a ‘ticking time bomb’ hindered by Islamist fighters, and he said other member states were hiding behind France to reject Albania’s EU application.
But a European diplomat told Euractiv that France has made its isolation over North Macedonia’s EU membership obvious when a ‘crushing majority’ of member states are in favour of further EU expansion.
The diplomat’s comments were supported by Vincenzo Amendola, Italy’s Minister for European affairs, who threw his support behind membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. He added enlargement is necessary for the EU to become a global power.
Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia also said that the western Balkans were necessary to consolidate Europe.
EU enlargement also exposes the fractured relationship between the French President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is in favour of this concept. But there is more to this power struggle than EU expansion; it is about integration too. Macron has pushed for further integration whilst Germany has always put its own interests first.
The Chancellor’s acceptance of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s bid for Germany’s 5G network shows that she is more interested in her country’s economic direction as opposed to the EU. Until France and Germany can agree on a strategic plan for the bloc’s future, there will never be a consensus between them about it.
The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen is keen to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia next year, but she has already clashed with Macron over this issue.
With Macron and Merkel having different visions of EU integration and expansion respectively, the bloc’s problems remain unresolved and the EU’s future remains in jeopardy.