Thursday

29th Jul 2021

Opinion

Macron breaks Balkans promise in quest for EU dominance

When people power forced out North Macedonia's regime in 2016, this was an inspiration to dissatisfied citizens around the Balkans.

Other authoritarians such as president Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia took note and tightened their stranglehold on political and economic life, determined not to let the same happen in their countries.

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North Macedonia's incoming centre-left government then struck historic deals with neighbours Bulgaria and Greece; on Greek insistence, it changed its name and ended a dispute that had blocked its path toward the EU and Nato for almost a quarter of a century.

The EU responded by promising to open accession talks. Meanwhile, former prime minister Nikola Gruevski was whisked out of the country by Hungarian diplomats and evaded justice. He is today a guest of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, his ideological soulmate inside the EU.

At this week's EU summit in Brussels, the EU's promise was broken.

Whereas a decision had been twice postponed before, France has escalated to holding the whole collectively agreed enlargement process hostage, demanding a rethink of the accession method before talks begin with the two current candidates - North Macedonia and Albania.

If France's vague demand stands, EU enlargement for those not already negotiating would evaporate.

The terms for those countries already in that process - Serbia and Montenegro - would be muddied rather than clarified in a useful way.

Finally, there is a serious risk of a Gruevski comeback in early elections that have, in the wake of France's veto, been called for next April.

In a piece of unprecedented policy vandalism, Macron has killed off a policy that until recently was seen as a core function of the EU, and which is the EU's only strategy toward its Balkan neighbours.

He is right that a policy review and recalibration is needed - the frontrunners in EU accession talks, Montenegro and Serbia, have both seen significant democratic and rule of law backsliding, which belies the theory that the closer a country is to joining, the stronger is the motivation to reform.

But Macron does not truly want to reform the process, he wants to wreck it.

This European Council has brought him a great deal closer to that goal. Contrary to many expectations, he did not blink when confronted by Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel. He held fast against almost all other member states in insisting that a decision be postponed until after a policy review.

What happened in Brussels this week indicates France's attempt to transform a lowest common denominator approach to enlargement that amounted to containment into a formalised containment policy.

France says that both North Macedonia and especially Albania have not advanced far enough to start membership negotiations, and that the accession process is no longer adequate to the task at hand. Neither of these arguments is entirely without merit.

But nor do they constitute the true picture. The absence of critique of the two "frontrunners," despite their manifest state capture, is one clue.

The way in which France's assertions have been advanced - without any specifics of what the two candidates are supposed to do to meet French demands, and without specific proposals on how to reform the process - suggests that what's at stake, for Macron, is France's leadership role in a post-Brexit EU.

The Balkan states, and enlargement in general, are merely collateral damage - expendable in his quest for supremacy. If the EU is still talking accession with Serbia and Montenegro, there is no objective reason why it would not do so with North Macedonia and Albania.

The current mood inside the EU is dark. A number of illiberal democracies are emerging, none more fully captured than Hungary. All of them are in member states that joined in 2004 or after.

But the argument that the EU should therefore block enlargement is short-sighted. In fact, fighting for values and standards in the enlargement countries is of one piece with the fighting for the same values and standards inside the union.

Illiberal allies

Perversely for a president who has portrayed himself as the anti-Orban in the EU firmament, Macron has effectively allied with Orban and other illiberals on the EU periphery.

These include Serbia's president Vucic.

It also includes Macron's openness to ethno-territorial border shifts, beginning with a "land swap" proposed by Vucic and his recently weakened Kosovo counterpart president Hashim Thaci.

On this issue, Macron is even effectively allied with US president Donald Trump against Merkel. As such, he makes the national populist disease - and all its attendant effects, including climate crisis denialism - stronger in Europe, not weaker.

If Macron believes that this policy will protect him against this domestically or closer to home, he is likely to be disappointed.

Europe's illiberals are allied and coordinated beyond the EU member states - indeed, beyond the confines of Europe.

Macron seems to believe he can better defend his vision of an EU as a Fortress Europe by eschewing alliances with popular exponents of the EU's foundational values outside its ranks.

This policy is doomed to fail - weakening Europe when it needs to consolidate around its fundamental values to face unprecedented societal and civilisational challenge.

Author bio

Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel are co-founders and senior associates of the Democratisation Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank. They live in Dundee and Brussels, respectively.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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Denmark, France and the Netherlands opposed opening talks on EU accession with Albania and North Macedonia in a blow that may invite greater Russian influence in the Balkan region.

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Enlargement has always propelled the EU's growth. On the contrary, every time the European Union closes its doors to potential new members, it chooses a path of decline, warns Ukraine's deputy PM, Dmytro Kuleba.

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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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