29th Mar 2023


Macron's Balkan cordon sanitaire will backfire on EU

  • To many in the Balkans, it looked like the EU was slamming the door in their face (Photo: Google Maps)

Over the past year or so, the European Union has committed a string of strategic blunders in the Western Balkans that have destroyed whatever little influence and credibility it still had.

In June last year, Macedonia agreed to add the qualifier "North" to its name in a bid to end Greece's blockage of membership negotiations with the EU.

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But having done what no other country in recent memory has done – change its name in order not to offend a more powerful neighbour – North Macedonia soon found a new, unexpected obstacle on its EU path: France's president, Emmanuel Macron. France led putting the brakes on opening membership talks in October 2018, despite the Prespa Agreement with Greece.

At a contentious summit of EU leaders in Brussels last month, an ill-tempered Macron strong-armed the EU into yet again postponing the opening of membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

This time, he insisted that no membership talks should begin before the EU has reformed the way the talks are conducted, and that no new member should be allowed to join before the EU had undergone a (still amorphous) deep internal reform.

To many in the Balkans, it looked like the EU was slamming the door in their face.

Since then, it has become obvious just how much first-mover advantage matters. Paris is, by default, now steering the EU's overall policy agenda toward the Western Balkans. This seems to be the opening volley and test bed for Macron's goal of recalibrating the entire EU agenda.

And despite early hopes that his election would usher in a reverse wave of progressive policy in the EU, Macron is demonstrating that political liberalism and elite accountability are not central pillars of his EU reform agenda.

France finally presented its ideas about how to reform the accession process in a thin briefing paper in mid-November.

The vacuous ideas outlined in the paper – rearranging the current 35 policy chapters into which accession talks are divided into seven stages – make it clear that France has no serious proposals to make. The fact that the paper was presented just days before EU ministers were supposed to discuss enlargement, and that as a consequence there was no time for meaningful preparation for that discussion, further underscored the shallowness of the French position.

It became evident that Macron's concern was not with the EU's enlargement policy but with something rather different. Suspicions that this was about seizing a leadership role for France in a post-Brexit EU, with Germany paralysed politically, seemed to be confirmed.

The French brief, as well as various other ill-thought-through ideas making the rounds following France's veto, did not present any fresh insights as to why the accession process in the Western Balkans has failed to be transformative as it was during earlier rounds in central and eastern Europe— notwithstanding the fact that since their accession, Hungary and Poland have themselves reversed much of their democratic evolution.

Two-month deadline

The two-month window within which the largely supine Europe ministers tasked the European Commission to develop a revised enlargement policy, as per Macron's proposal, demonstrated the lack of seriousness and analysis.

We have been vocal for many years about the ways in which the EU's current approach has emboldened and enriched incumbent elites, weakened and alienated civil society, deepened economic inequality and failed to entrench democratic values, institutions, and practices in the region.

Our organisation has also offered practical as well as more philosophical ways in which the enlargement process should or could be reconstituted, notably by relying far less on incumbent elites and instead mobilising existing popular constituencies for reform.

But ditching the current enlargement policy and framework without understanding why it is not working is policy vandalism, not reform.

The full panoply of EU-led Western policies in the Balkans needs critical review before there is a reboot. Such a review must centrally involve independent actors, not just local elites and the EU's bureaucracy.

The lack of depth of analysis and reflection for a policy shift of the magnitude proposed is astounding. It also reverses the meaningful (but still insufficient) strides made toward an honest policy in the European Commission's "new strategy" toward the Western Balkans, unveiled less than two years ago.

The French policy amounts to prescription with only cursory symptomatic diagnostics. The prescription offered amounts to hospice care.

First, the French proposal – as were many earlier unofficial proposals – is overwhelmingly focused on economics. Flip-flopping between a political and economic focus has long been the EU's response to failing policies in the Balkans, while ignoring the reasons for such failures: all rooted in a lack of insistence on political accountability and direct civic engagement based on EU foundational values.

But this is particularly remarkable following the EU's belated recognition of state capture being a widespread phenomenon among candidate and aspirant countries.

These countries' politics have always revolved around dominating the economic sphere, formal and informal. Tellingly, the terms "state capture" and "corruption" are absent from the French proposal.

Where's the democracy?

Perhaps most importantly, the proposal makes no mention of liberal values, freedoms, democracy, or political accountability. Advocates of these foundational concepts in the Western Balkans will find themselves on even shakier ground should the French proposal or a derivative thereof be adopted as the EU's policy.

The EU has long since largely accepted – and often reinforced – the dominance of a for-profit, illiberal political class, who are still allegedly "partners" in reform. Therefore, the proposal's lament of a lack of transformation rings hollow. When did the EU ever make transformation its overarching priority?

Increased transfusions of money are offered as social sedatives, easing the pain of exclusion for the foreseeable future from the EU.

The linking of increased "concrete benefits" with their stated goal to "prevent migratory movements" is revelatory of the mindset with which Macron's team developed this vision. What is desired is nothing less than a 'cordon sanitaire'. The policy might be summarised as 'containment with benefits' – for the political elites of the Western Balkans.

Further, the relegation of foreign affairs to the sixth stage or circle is stunningly incongruent with the geopolitical angst long evident in Paris and other EU capitals.

It contradicts the current (weak) policy of "gradual alignment," implying that the EU should indulge the deeper rooting of illiberal actors in the political economies of the region. It also, cynically, might be viewed as consigning these countries to the permanent periphery, given the depth that Russia, China, Turkey, and the Gulf States may have woven themselves into the region after the first five stages.

Sadly, many in the region and concerned with it seem intent on finding a bright side in France's vision, out of desperation. But there is none.

Should these policies be adopted, citizens of these countries will be right to view the EU and other foreign actors in the same vein – self-seeking parts of the problem, rather than part of the solution – and align nonviolently against them all accordingly.

Should some EU member states cringe at such a prospect, as they should, they missed a good opportunity to speak up. They have precious little time left to do so.

Author bio

Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel are co-founders of the Democratization Policy Council.


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

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