Transatlantic Take

Macron’s Risky Balkans Bet

November 04, 2019
Milan Seghier
7 min read
Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock
Many leaders were quick to vent their frustration and anger following France’s recent veto of the EU opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

Many leaders were quick to vent their frustration and anger following France’s recent veto of the EU opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council leader Donald Tusk called this decision a “mistake.” North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said that his country was the victim of a “historic error”.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama was more optimistic, however, declaring that his country had nothing to worry about since the decision was due to EU internal issues. However, he pointed out that there “will be a series of communications with the French president and the other member countries in order to better understand the progress with this process.”

The potential impact of the French decision highlights the need for European policymakers to find an agreement and commit to a roadmap for the Western Balkans. This veto, which was no surprise to observers of French diplomacy in the Balkans, has brought enlargement to a standstill. Meanwhile, the region—facing the indifference and conflicting messages coming from Brussels and member-state capitals—is turning to other powers that wish to increase their influence there.

The veto might also lead to a consolidation of the Balkan “stabilitocracies”—defined by Florian Bieber as a government claiming to secure stability while undermining democracy and the rule of law––as well as leave the region’s ongoing border disputes in a dangerous status quo. As a result of the French “no,” there will now also be snap elections in North Macedonia on April 12, many candidates in which want to overturn the country’s name change, which would be an obvious regional setback.  

An Unsurprising Veto

The French veto has been heavily criticized by political leaders, analysts, and journalists in the international media. By contrast, in France this is not seen as a major issue. Thus there have only been occasional articles relaying the views of the government through the secretary of state in charge of European affairs, Amélie de Montchalin, or those quoting the rare French experts on the Balkans, who have been critical.

Far-ranging explanations have been put forward for the veto—from President Emmanuel Macron seeking revenge for Germany’s refusal to accept EU reforms to a wish to push up his poll ratings. But all the criticism of Macron shares one general sentiment, namely that his EU policy is incoherent. He wants to be the main leader of the EU and increase its influence, but he sometimes takes decisions that undermine it. Yet, the fact is that Macron has also been rather predictable in his EU policy, especially regarding the Western Balkans.

"Macron shares a general French skepticism about EU enlargement­­, while paradoxically affirming that the region’s countries belong in the union."

The president shares a general French skepticism about EU enlargement­­, while paradoxically affirming that the region’s countries belong in the union. Sentiment against enlargement follows a general historical trend in which France has often argued for a deepening of the EU before expanding it. As the academic Loïc Trégourès points out, France has over the years expressed reservations against enlargement; for example, earlier toward the United Kingdom and Spain. There is also a lack of interest in the French public debate on this issue.

In his September 2017 speech at the Sorbonne, in which he set out his vision of Europe, Macron clearly stated that the future of the Western Balkans is within the EU. However, following this speech he laid out the conditions for their accession. He stressed the need for the region’s countries to address migration-related issues as well as to increase their fight against corruption. At last year’s summit on the Western Balkans in Sofia, Macron argued that a too speedy enlargement had damaged the union. Related to this, he has also repeatedly argued for the need to reform the EU.

A Different Europe to Join

Contrary to what has been said by some, the veto was not motivated by domestic political considerations since this is not a major issue in France. In fact, Macron, like François Mitterrand before him, strongly believes in a Europe of concentric circles. He has talked about this several times, including to the annual conference of France’s ambassadors in 2018 and in August this year. In Lisbon last year, Macron mentioned three potential circles: a core with a very deep fiscal, social, and economic union; a second circle constituting a strong single market that could also deal with digital or defense issues; and a third circle consisting of a union of values and economic freedom.

Macron considers that the different EU mechanisms and asymmetrical levels of integration among member states need to be reset. The current model of an EU à la carte whereby a member state or a candidate can or cannot belong to the Schengen area or the eurozone, for example, increases the level of complexity and incoherence of the current model. With a reformed EU of concentric circles, a discussion could be opened on the different degrees of integration to which candidates and member states aspire to. More importantly, in this view, Balkan countries could integrate the EU progressively, joining the outer circle at first and then making their way toward the core.

A Risky Bet?

France says its veto is justified by the lack of compliance by Albania and North Macedonia with all the conditions necessary to open accession talks. But it also keeps reaffirming that it believes that the Balkan countries belong in a restructured EU. During his visit to Serbia in July, Macron and President Aleksandar Vučić issued a joint statement affirming that the country, which has already opened several negotiations chapters and hoped to be a full-fledged member by 2025, would join a “reformed EU” later.

France’s veto can thus be seen as a risky bet by Macron to push for internal reforms in the candidate countries. If these are successfully carried out, along with them fulfilling all their obligations to open accession talks or more chapters, France would lift its veto on enlargement. This is the same strategy that President Nicolas Sarkozy used to push for the approval of the Lisbon Treaty. In 2008, after Irish voters rejected by referendum the proposed amendments included in the treaty, which was designed to overhaul much of the EU institutions, Sarkozy declared that France would not be in favor of the accession of then candidates should the treaty not be adopted. Ireland, after obtaining certain concessions, voted for an amended version in a second referendum.

If this is France’s message, then it needs to be more clearly expressed and a common strategy with the rest of the EU needs to be found. Balkan leaders, who in some cases are struggling to sell the European project to their people, are not helped by an EU that appears to be turning its back on the region and missing its own deadlines, while affirming that accession will happen someday.

"If this is France’s message, then it needs to be more clearly expressed and a common strategy with the rest of the EU needs to be found."

The EU member states must agree on a roadmap for the Western Balkans. There cannot be guarantees coming from the Council, the European Commission or the European Parliament, only for the actions of one member state to contradict all of them. The credibility of the union is visibly damaged by this.

Risk of Drift

Furthermore, if the EU keeps giving the Western Balkans the stick but not the carrot, the region will drift away and fall into the sphere of influence not only of China and Russia, but also of Turkey and the Gulf states. Solutions circumventing the French veto need to be found in order to mitigate the perception in the region of the EU being weak.

Serbia is a clear example of the risks. Vučić has stated that the veto justifies Serbia’s rapprochement with China, which sees the region as significant in its Belt and Road initiative, and Russia. The country has just signed a trade deal with the Russian-led Eurasia Union and now has a comprehensive partnership with Beijing that includes Chinese police carrying out joint patrols in Serbian towns and the installation of a thousand Huawei facial-recognition cameras in Belgrade.

If Macron does believe in the Balkans’ EU future, he should offer some tangible deliverables that will contribute to the region’s stabilization. For instance, France could support and help build the “mini-Schengen” zone between Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia that was proposed following a trilateral meeting on October 10. This idea was almost immediately scrapped following yet another diplomatic row between the Albanian and Serbian leaders over the inclusion of Kosovo.

More generally, France needs to accept its share of responsibility for the consequences of its veto while clearly explaining the reasons behind it. If EU reform is the final objective, then this must be spelled out. At the same time, France should not overlook the harm in the region as a result of the misinterpretation of its decision. Additionally, Macron needs to set out a clear-cut strategy for the Western Balkans and promote increased collaboration among the region’s countries as well as think of ways how France can contribute to resolving its numerous enduring conflicts.