Wednesday

8th Apr 2020

Analysis

What does Macron really want on Western Balkans?

  • 'If you want to know what Macron wants, just ... read The Economist,' a French diplomat said (Photo: elysee.fr)

French president Emmanuel Macron's enlargement veto is not a ploy for concessions in other areas, his diplomats and MEPs say.

His calls for prior EU reforms are short on detail and if Europe gets it wrong, it could destabilise its closest neighbours, experts warn.

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  • North Macedonian leader Zoran Zaev (l) did everything the EU had asked (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

But there might still be time to make big changes before a crunch meeting in Zagreb.

Macron caused shock at an EU summit in October by saying no to accession talks with North Macedonia despite the fact it had done everything the EU had asked.

He caused even more anxiety by saying the EU must reform the way it does enlargement before taking any further steps.

And he stood firm on his position in an interview with The Economist, a British magazine, last week.

"Opening a purely bureaucratic process [with North Macedonia] is absurd," he said.

"My conviction is ... we need to reform our membership procedures - they're no longer fit for purpose. They're not strategic. They're not political, too bureaucratic, and not reversible," he added.

Macron's bombshell prompted some in Brussels to question his convictions, however.

Did he aim to trade his veto for German concessions on other pet projects, such as European Parliament electoral reform?

Was he holding the Western Balkans hostage until MEPs approved his second choice for EU commissioner?

"What does France really want?!", one exasperated EU source told EUobserver.

"We don't know what it is or if it would change anything if the [European] Commission came forward with proposals [on enlargement reform]," the source added.

One month after the October summit, French diplomats have not given any extra detail on his vision to their EU peers and the Western Balkans were not on the agenda when foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday.

But that did not mean there was any hidden quid pro quo, they said.

"If you want to know what Macron wants, just listen to what he told press in October or read The Economist," a French diplomat told this website.

"Clearly not", Nathalie Loiseau, a senior MEP from Macron's party and his former minister of EU affairs, also told EUobserver when asked if the veto was related to other issues.

"He is serious about enlargement. He really wants to make it a success, not just a slogan," she added.

"It is urgent. We hope the commission will come swiftly with a proposal ... the enlargement process has to be fixed," Loiseau said.

"You have to increase European presence, European investments. We do a lot through IPA and should do even more. A reviewed accession process should be more tangible for the people of the Western Balkans, more progressive and reversible," she also said, referring to the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), a €12bn EU fund for enlargement hopefuls.

Urgency

Amid the doubt, Loiseau's note of urgency is one thing everybody can agree on.

EU leaders are to meet their Western Balkan counterparts in Zagreb in May and if Europe remained stuck on how to move forward six months from now, it could have "extremely serious" consequences, the EU source said.

"There is huge disappointment and anger in North Macedonia and VMRO-DPMNE could make a comeback," the source added, referring to a nationalist opposition party.

"We have to confirm our commitment to enlargement in a very clear way [in Zagreb]," the source said.

"The French veto vitiates much of the argument for reform and hence conflict resolution in the region: It says you cannot rely on EU promises, even if you institute painful and politically difficult reforms," Daniel Serwer, a former US diplomat who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said.

Some among the Serb minorities in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro still aspired to rejoin Serbia and some Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia aspired to join a greater Albania in ideas which "could cause serious instability" unless EU accession prospects laid them to rest, Serwer added.

Still time

But there was still time before the Zagreb summit to satisfy French demands, Pierre Mirel, a former French diplomat who used to run the EU commission's Western Balkans department, told EUobserver.

There was no need to change the EU treaty, for instance, because the treaty, in its Article 49, said very little on how to do enlargement, beyond its iconic words that "any European state which respects [EU] values ... may apply to become a member of the Union," Mirel, who now teaches at Sciences Po, an elite French academy, noted.

And even if six months was too short to complete EU reforms, "at least new principles could be established" and that might be enough to satisfy Macron, he said.

The French veto did not come out of nowhere because Paris had been saying for "many years" that the EU accession process was not working in the Western Balkans, he noted.

"I often travel to the region and what I see is really worrying levels of emigration ... even people who are doing well see no hope for their children. These countries are starving for investment. Health care systems and education are in an appalling state," he said.

Mirel said he was not privy to the detail of French ideas for change.

But for him, one potential model was what he called "two-stage accession".

EU faith

Instead of funding reforms via the IPA, Europe ought to open up its €63bn cohesion fund, which currently drags new EU members out of poverty, to Western Balkan hopefuls, he said.

The cohesion grants should be paid out on a "more for more" basis - more money for those who made more progress on reform, he noted.

Frontrunners should also be made "full members" of the single market and invited to join EU Council meetings in relevant areas, he said.

And then, after a "probation period of three to four years", if they had proved that pro-EU reforms were being "enforced and respected", they could finally join the club, he added.

If people in the Western Balkans were losing faith in EU leaders, then cohesion funding could restore credibility, he said.

"It would make a psychological difference, because EU structural funds are only meant for real new members," he told EUobserver.

And if people in the EU were losing faith in Western Balkan leaders, then the "Europeanisation" effect of a two-stage accession could make a difference on the other side, he added.

"Public opinion would get slowly used to the new members becoming new members," Mirel said.

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There has been little substantial analysis, since the Macron veto, of why so much money and effort in the Balkans has failed to result in the political and economic transformation needed to prepare candidates for full membership.

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Over the years, both real and perceived levels of corruption in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have remained high. The necessary reforms in those countries, to put it mildly, are not yet effectively carried out.

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