Squaring The Circle Of West Balkans Accession To The European Union
The decision by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to veto the start of talks with Albania and North Macedonia for acceding to the European Union has caused a political storm in the region and in Europe generally. And even more so as it became clear that France was insisting on stopping any formal step in further EU enlargement in the Balkans, calling instead for reforming the accession process before starting membership talks. Macron called the enlargement debate “bizarre,” and questioned the wisdom of visa-free travel for Balkan countries before opening negotiations. Amelie de Montchalin, France's European affairs minister, called the accession process “an endless soap opera.”
The European Commission for its part stated that Albania had made a concerted effort to eradicate corruption in its judiciary, while North Macedonia had resolved its dispute with Greece when it changed its name, and thus both had earned the right to start accession talks. Outgoing EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said this was “not a moment of glory for Europe!” He also pointed out that the majority of member states had supported the European Council’s recommendation to start negotiations.
A few months ago, Germany also seemed to doubt the wisdom of opening talks with the two countries but geopolitical considerations swayed the Bundestag to conditionally allow them. The minister in charge of EU affairs, Michael Roth, stated that Germany’s position was that “the EU takes responsibility for stability, democracy, and reconciliation in the Western Balkans and that means keeping our promises.” He added that “Much can be lost by creating a strategic vacuum there.” This was echoed by other member states. “There are other countries—Russia and China—who are just waiting for the EU to withdraw from this region,” Poland’s EU affairs minister, Konrad Szymanski, said.
Many others are concerned that the EU failing to deliver what had been promised to Albania and North Macedonia will hurt the forthcoming talks on a final peace settlement between Kosovo and Serbia. The incoming EU high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has announced that his first trip would be to Kosovo.
“Good luck with that” was the feeling of many commentators. “The dialogue [between Kosovo and Serbia] was launched offering enlargement as a reward for progress on resolving the dispute. If there is no tangible reward the EU can offer at the moment to the region, the incentive for compromise in the region diminishes,” warned Florian Bieber.
Yet, few observers reflected on the reasons for France’s position. Macron has been rather consistent in his objection to enlargement. And public opinion in France (as in Germany, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands) is vehemently against it. After a tough year battling the Yellow Vests protest movement, the last thing Macron needs is headlines (even if they are not true) about a wave of Balkanites arriving in French banlieues. He is probably also thinking about the post-Brexit political landscape, and in that context enlargement is “collateral damage.”
The former senior French diplomat, Gerard Araud, tweeted that the enlargement debate is “avoiding legitimate questions about the future of the EU, ignoring the growing mistrust of our citizens vs Brussels and forgetting the major challenges the EU is facing.” Even more fundamentally, there is an argument that “key EU states, most notably France, never really wanted the EU to enlarge to the east”.
What is the exit from this quagmire? Gerald Knaus, of the European Stability Initiative, suggests that the EU should open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, but also turn the accession process into a “merit-based process that brings Balkans closer to EU – an integration in substance”. This would not offer full membership to Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, but rather include them initially in a process to join a new southeast Economic Area that would cover the same issues as the European Economic Area, which has enabled the extension of the single market to non-member states Norway, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein.
This makes sense. Realistically, enlargement is a non-starter for France and others, regardless of whether or not negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia are opened. A southeast Economic Area would enable free movement in labor, goods, services, and capital from and to those Western Balkans countries that make progress in reforms. Such progress should also unlock cohesion funds for the best achievers.
EU members could also placate their public opinion with a promise that there will be no new enlargement until they agree that the union’s absorption capacities allow for it. As Vessela Tcherneva, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, commented, there is a “coalition-building around this idea, largely acceptable by the EU member states.”
The reaction from the region has been muted. Agon Maliqi, one of Kosovo’s foremost analysts, said such a solution would weaken the EU pull and not project the symbolic power of full accession. Furthermore, as he says, “answers to region's architecture will have to come from WB democratic grassroots - no more experiments from abroad.” At the same time, reforms make sense only if people see not just palpable change within their societies but also in the interaction of their countries with the wider European family. And neither internal changes nor external projections of those changes are plausible without a far closer relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans Six.
A far bigger issue than specific mechanisms is the fundamental problem of tense bilateral relations preventing any meaningful progress in the region. Having countries “progress” toward a closer relation with the EU through the current process or an alternative is an exercise in futility if bilateral problems are not tackled first. Without this, a southeast Economic Area would risk becoming another Berlin Process—a mechanism enabling meetings where everyone tries to ignore the elephants in the room.
The following steps could help the EU enlargement process. First, member states should create a level playing field by delivering long-promised visa liberalization for Kosovo as well as starting negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Second, an intensive round of diplomacy is needed to deal with the most urgent bilateral issues. Borrell, with the strong support of the member states and the United States, should strive to help Kosovo and Serbia reach an agreement.
Simultaneously and promptly, the EU member states should offer a new set of credible incentives for the region, focused on southeast Economic Area type of agreement. As a part of this new focused drive toward the region, the border demarcation between the Western Balkans Six has to be completed to build regional trust—and the region’s trustworthiness.
One thing that neither EU nor the people of the Western Balkans have is time. Lack of agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will inevitably see the latter increase its diplomatic offensive against the former, with little reaction from the West. In response, any Kosovo government will be pressured by an impatient local public to reinforce its sovereignty in the north. This tit-for-tat can easily escalate and set the region back—and make the public in the member states even more skeptical of enlargement.
And there is one more reason for speed. As Tim Judah wrote recently, people in the Balkans are tired of the lack of progress toward joining the EU and they may decide to emigrate in ever greater numbers before any of the countries in the region are able to finish the process that was started at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki 16 years ago.
Petrit Selimi is the former foreign minister of the Republic of Kosovo and a Marshall Memorial Fellow at The German Marshal Fund of The United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.