Access for the states concerned, most immediately for North Macedonia and Albania, would be many years off—but the symbolism is important.
This week European Union member states are due to decide whether to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, after EU leaders decided to delay the decision at the European Council in June.
As argued previously, there are several obstacles on the path to the western Balkans’ EU accession, in the six states concerned (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) and in the EU itself.
Despite these challenges, recently there have been signals that the EU is ready to go ahead with the process, at least for North Macedonia, which fulfilled an important criterion of its accession perspective by solving its name dispute with Greece last year. For instance, the German Parliament voted to support opening the talks, as did the Dutch—although only with Skopje, not Tirana. The Visegrád four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) are vocal supporters of the western Balkans joining the EU.
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The European Commission president-elect, Ursula von der Leyen, also argued for opening negotiations with both countries, and the future high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, has declared his intention to make the western Balkans one of the key themes of his work.
At the same time, uncertainties remain. There is still no commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, after the Hungarian László Trócsányi was rejected by the European Parliament. In fact, even if Hungary’s new proposed candidate, Olivér Várhelyi, gets the position, it remains difficult to see how anyone nominated by the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, would be credible in advocating for the rule of law in the western Balkans—given the record of his Fidesz party in power, on corruption and infringement of EU law and values.
As the European Council’s approval must be unanimous, opposition to starting talks—although not necessarily to enlargement in principle—in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and France should be watched attentively. According to media reports, France is particularly hesitant about giving the go-ahead, suggesting another delay until the summit in March 2020. The president, Emmanuel Macron, has repeatedly said he believes the union needs to be reformed before thinking about accepting new members.
The timing of this decision is important. The UK could leave in two weeks and ‘Brexit’ raises a number of questions about the EU’s future foreign policy and its role in the world, which the EU27 have, until now, failed to address. Then there is the new institutional cycle, with a self-declared ‘geopolitical’ commission taking over and expectations that the EU will be a more significant global actor.
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How the EU will deal with enlargement is significant for its post-Brexit credibility as a global actor. Enlargement has often been described as the EU’s most successful foreign-policy tool and it remains one the most important arenas which define Brussels’ projection on the world stage.
Of course, it is not always effective in all areas. Slovenia and Croatia, both from former Yugoslavia and now both EU member states, still cannot solve their border issues. But the policy will be even less effective in promoting the EU’s influence if the western Balkans do not have any credible perspective of joining.
Delaying the decision risks a negative impact on the EU’s image and soft power in the whole region. North Macedonia’s name change was one of the conditions to begin accession talks, and the EU not fulfilling its part of the deal would decrease the motivation for reforms. For instance, Serbia and Kosovo would also have fewer incentives to work towards an agreement.
Von der Leyen, along with the current presidents of the commission, council and European Parliament—Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and David Sassoli respectively—recently wrote that ‘if the EU is to uphold its international role and protect its interests, taking a step towards integrating those European countries that have expressed an interest and have fulfilled the requirements for starting the accession process will help achieve this’. As Borrell also recently said, the EU’s credibility as a world power would be seriously undermined if it were seen as unwilling or incapable of solving problems with its closest neighbours.
Current and future representatives of EU institutions therefore seem to be serious about pursuing an effective enlargement policy. They now need the support of member states. Agreeing to launch these talks would be a mainly symbolic act, as in practice the process will last for many years and will not mean automatic enlargement. But this symbolism would mean a lot for defining the EU’s attitude towards its post-Brexit relations with the world and the message it wants to send about its long-term priorities.
EU27 leaders should treat this decision as a crucial part of their reflection on the EU’s future global role, if they want to develop a credible European foreign policy. This especially concerns Macron, who has many ambitions for European ‘strategic autonomy’ and ability to influence the world.