Looking South, Another Missed Opportunity

On an increasingly fractured continent, a glimmer of hope for European unity appeared this past summer. Against the idyllic backdrop of Lake Prespa, straddling the border between North Macedonia and Greece, the two countries finally settled their longstanding name dispute. Twenty-five years of hostility ended as North Macedonia changed its name on the explicit promise of EU and NATO accession talks as a reward. Concurrent to these negotiations, neighboring Albania undertook its own changes, implementing steps laid out by the EU as prerequisites to membership. This included judicial reforms and giving the Union’s Frontex border agency access to internal police operations. However, when the EU had the chance to reward Albania and North Macedonia for their progress at mid-October’s summit, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark, following Emmanuel Macron’s lead, betrayed these promises and vetoed the opening of accession negotiations. Despite the outrage of other European leaders over the move, the door is now closed to Albania and North Macedonia’s membership for the time being.

France had its stated reasons, but this decision is ultimately the latest example of European leaders allowing their internal disputes to adversely affect the EU’s foreign policy, both in the Balkans and beyond. Their reasons for rejecting accession talks included dissatisfaction with current policies and institutions that should be rectified before adding new members and objections to the current accession process itself. While these arguments do have some legitimacy, much of the French government’s motivation under Emmanuel Macron seems based instead on internal political disputes with other member states. Anticipating the UK’s absence, disagreements between France and Germany, the bloc’s two largest and most powerful members, have come to define European politics as of late. The two, which strenuously disagreed over the accession issue, were at loggerheads during last summer’s fraught selection of the next European Commission president, and often spar over monetary and defense policy.

When analyzing France’s stated concerns about the need for reform in Albania and North Macedonia, it becomes clear that they are simply masking their grievances about intra-bloc politics; accession talks with Serbia and Montenegro are both underway despite egregious violations of democratic norms, and in Serbia’s case, growing ties with Russia and China. Macron instead fears enlargement of the bloc would merely insert more variables into the bloc’s politics at a time when he is seeking to shape its future. In the Balkans’ case, this undermines the bloc’s trust with countries in the region, opening the door to more security challenges and malign influence from Russia, China and Turkey. All three countries have sought to establish a more robust presence in the Balkans and thereby increase their influence over all of Europe. The EU’s foreign policy strength, meanwhile, weakens. The belief that the Balkan question will simply go away for the EU is a deeply flawed one.

Indeed, the security situation in the region –– which has seen the most recent armed conflicts on the European continent –– is only deteriorating. In nearby Bosnia, the Serbian minority entity Republika Srpska has been agitating for secession and its leaders have stepped up their ethno-nationalist rhetoric. Both Bosnian Muslim and Serbian factions have been organizing security forces which threaten to destabilize the situation further. The organized crime that originates in the Balkans, particularly in Albania, stands only to worsen without the increased crime fighting capabilities that EU agencies could provide. Russia and China, meanwhile, have undertaken concerted efforts in recent years to increase their presence in the region. Last year’s referendum confirming North Macedonia’s name change saw unprecedented amounts of Russian interference while China’s infrastructure investments have indebted leaders across the region to their illiberal regime. At the same time, Erdogan’s regime in Turkey has leveraged its identity to establish more influence in the Balkans’ Muslim communities, including in Albania. If the EU continues to fail in providing a viable alternative for Balkan countries, these footholds are likely to only continue to grow.

One thing all Union members can agree on is the desire for stability on the continent and the prevention of malign influence on its neighbors. Closing the bloc off to growth is wholly counterproductive to that end, and instead engenders only greater instability. In the wake of the accession decision, Serbian president Alexander Vucic said it vindicated Serbia’s growing ties with Russia and China. Throughout all of this, Albania and North Macedonia are left in the lurch. Albania, which stands to benefit tremendously from EU membership, talks about damaged motivation for reform. North Macedonia, meanwhile, has called early elections for April, where the nationalists who were deposed several years ago for corruption could harness anger over France’s veto to regain power and pull out of the Prespa agreement. With the Balkan countries’ entreaties to the EU only ever seeming to end negatively, the impetus to look eastward toward Russia, China and Turkey, all three of which seek to undermine Western Europe’s influence in the region, only grows.

Macron claims to have the bloc’s best interest in mind in closing it off to expansion. This is simply a continuation of the closed-minded, inward-looking thinking that has already affected Europe’s standing so substantially. Albania and North Macedonia are prime examples of countries in the Balkans that have attempted serious engagement with the European Union only to be ignored and cast aside when it mattered. If the EU loses its ability to credibly engage with Balkan countries –– a real question after the accession decision –– it could well come to regret it in a few years’ time when China, Russia and Turkey are driving the agenda instead.

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