On October 18, the enlargement process suffered a setback, due to the European Council’s failure to agree on opening EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. France’s veto has caused massive disappointment within the European Union and especially in the countries affected by this decision. What consequences will this delay have on the enlargement process? With the EU’s credibility undermined, will this decision actually open the door to political and economic influences from external actors in the Western Balkan region?

The facts
For the third time in two years, the European Council has decided to not open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, and to revert the issue of enlargement ad list before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May 2020.France was the main opponent to the opening talks with both countries. Macron has cited procedural reasons for blocking the two Countries, claiming that it is necessary (considering Brexit) to reform the whole EU decision-making process before proceeding with further enlargements. However, France was joined by Denmark and the Netherlands in refusing Albania, demanding the implementation of more reforms especially regarding the fight against crime and corruption.

In the aftermath of the Council’s negative answer, the entire Heads of EU institutions stood against this decision. Outgoing European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, expressed his disappointment while Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has openly declared that the decision is a mistake. Moreover, the outgoing President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said he was “very disappointed with the European Council’s decision on enlargement as North Macedonia and Albania”, considering the efforts made by both states. As a matter of fact, since April 2019 the European Commission supported unconditionally the opening of the negotiations.
The European Parliament expressed deep disappointment over the Council decision and on 24 October adopted a resolution stressing that Albania and North Macedonia have met the requirements to open accession negotiations.

Main reactions
Balkans States began their long path towards the EU at a Summit held in Thessaloniki in 2003, where the European Council affirmed its determination to fully support the European integration of the Western Balkans countries. North Macedonia is a candidate country since 2005, and Albania since 2014.

During the last years both Countries have made considerable efforts to meet the EU’s requirements for opening accession negotiations, but the decision is interpreted as particularly disappointing by North Macedonia, given also the efforts made to achieve the ratification of the Prespa Agreement after 27 years of dispute with Greece over the name. This agreement, that was one of the main conditions for the opening of accession negotiations with the EU, was strongly supported by the Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev and sets an example of reconciliation for the entire Balkan region. Unfortunately, the Council decision was obviously a political death sentence for Zaev and his government. Zaev declared the refusal as a historical error and a great injustice for his country and called for snap elections. In a meeting of the country’s political leadership, it was agreed that the early parliamentary election will be held on 12 April 2020. In line with the “Prižno Agreement”, reached by political leaders in 2015, Zaev is expected to resign 100 days ahead of the elections and will be replaced by a technical government.

Although Zaev affirmed that all the leaders of the parties in Macedonia remain in favour of the Euro-Atlantic integrations, undoubtedly this stalemate will affect the internal situation in the country. In fact, in the last few days the main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, is threatening to challenge the name deal signed with Greece signed in June 2018. These types of assertions should not be underestimated by the EU leaders. Simultaneously with the process of accession to the EU, the country is currently in the process of joining NATO and is expected to become the 30th of the organization early in 2020, once its accession has been ratified by all member states.

On the contrary, in Albania PM Edi Rama (PM since 2013), despite the opposition is calling for the resignation and is blaming him for the EU setback, has ruled out any scenario about elections. The Albanian PM declared that his nation was a victim of the EU’s own division and the setback of accession negotiations was a collateral damage of an intra-EU power struggle. Moreover, he declared to be determined to realize the electoral reform, as it is a further condition for the accession negotiations.

Western Balkan’s European path at risk?
There is no doubt that both countries are still eager to join the European Union, but this volition has undergone a tough ordeal at the moment.

In the first place, this delay risks to damage the EU’s credibility in the region. With the EU’s credibility undermined, other external actors, in particular Russia and China, could be tempted to engage more closely with Albania and North Macedonia and to exercise their influence in the area, with an agenda that diverges significantly from the European one.

Furthermore, this decision could lead to instability and to a more fragmented political situation in both countries, whereas the starts of the negotiations would be a golden opportunity for Albania and North Macedonia to put reforms on the fast track, in particular as regards rule of law and fight against corruption and crime. Moreover, it must be remembered that the beginning of the negotiation talks does not mean automatic EU membership; indeed, the accession talks is a process that could take several times.

Ultimately, EU accession is not only grounded on the progress and the achievements made by the aspirant countries but also on the willingness of existing EU members to move accession forward and to not further undermine the EU’s credibility.

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