During the last month, the European Union decided to block Albania and North Macedonia from starting membership talks. The decision came after the “Non” said by several countries including France and Spain, and it is considered by Senior EU official, like the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker, as a “grave historic mistake”1. The failure came despite a recommendation from the European Commission and the European Parliament.
In order to open negotiations for any applicant country to gain full membership, the EU Member States must unanimously agree to the request. The current list of candidate countries is composed by five countries: Albania, North Macedonia, Turkey, Montenegro and Serbia.
The candidate countries must adopt reforms in areas such as economic policy, human rights, anti-corruption measures and the rule of law. Only when the EU Member States believe that the country has made sufficient progress, negotiations can begin.
The main actor in this block of the talks is France, represented by its European Affairs Minister Amélie de Montchalin, who believes that both countries, especially North Macedonia (France is the only country that exercised a veto against North Macedonia), still do not have done enough in adopting reforms. The French Minister also said that “bigger issues should have to be addressed, including a deep reform of the way the Commission conducts the negotiations and also addressing the issue of brain drain in the respective countries”2.
According to the French President Emmanuel Macron, the process for accepting new members into the European Union would have to offer more incentives along the way to the “candidate countries” and it must make sure that they are committed to the rule of law — with no backsliding. He wants to avoid the behavior shown by several Central European countries that have subverted independent democratic institutions to consolidate power, thus challenging fundamental values of the European Union.
The other Member States, especially Germany, Italy, Finland and Belgium, disagree with the veto exercised by the four countries and said they would open the talks with Albania and North Macedonia as soon as possible.
The German Chancellor, Mrs Angela Merkel, championed North Macedonia’s cause earlier this year when, with the Prespa Agreement, it agreed to change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia to settle a row with Greece. The Italian Prime Minister, Mr Giuseppe Conte, described this decision as an “historic error” and he hopes that the talks with the two countries can restart soon3.
After the Prespa Agreement, signed by the Hellenic Republic and the Republic of North Macedonia on 18th June 2018, that came into forces in January 2019, and the signing in February 2019 of the accession protocol of North Macedonia to NATO, ratified so far by 13 of the 29 Member States, North Macedonia believes that the European Union could authorize the beginning of the talks for the future membership. This is because in the past the vetoes where justified by the conflict with Greece on its official name, that have now reached an interim conclusion.
The Senior European Union Officials believe that this decision taken by France will lead the EU itself to a loss of credibility towards the candidate countries, especially with regard to North Macedonia. Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov has called on the European Union to be honest about the prospects for future membership. Also the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, asked for explanations from the EU on this decision and he affirmed that “Albanians are Europeans and Europe is the only place where Albanian people can live free and safe”.
The Commissioner for Enlargement, the Austrian politician Johannes Hahn, asked to all the leaders of the 28 Member States to demonstrate to Albania and North Macedonia how serious their commitment is, in order to avoid negative consequences as the risk of destabilization of Western Balkans, with full impact on the European Union. The stability in the Balkans has to be one of the core priorities of the European Union.
Another important risk that the EU leaders could face is the possible extension by other countries, for example Russia or even China, of their sphere of influence in the Balkans and that could distance these countries from the European Union and would make it more difficult to reach agreements and cooperation with each individual country on the control of migrations, human trafficking, and the fight against radicalization.
It could also have economic consequences given that the economy of the EU and that of the Western Balkans are closely linked both from an import/export point of view and for investments both by private companies and by the EU itself.
The EU needs to find a solution to this issue before the summit with Western Balkans leaders in Zagreb early next year.
1Andrew Gray – Juncker: EU’s North Macedonia, Albania rebuff is ‘historic mistake’, Politico EU, 18th Oct. 2019 https://www.politico.eu/article/jean-claude-juncker-eu-north-macedonia-albania-rebuff-historic-mistake/
2Georgi Gotev – France halts EU enlargement, Euractiv, 16th Oct. 2019 https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/news/france-halts-eu-enlargement/