French President Emmanuel Macron’s resounding “no” to the start of negotiations on the accession of North Macedonia and Albania to the EU has annuled the Union’s key strategy for transforming the region. Not only is EU membership is becoming more distant for the two Western Balkan countries, but others are slowly losing hope, the Brussels-based newspaper Politico reports.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Winston Churchill was famously (mis)quoted as saying, the EU shouldn’t let a “good crisis go to waste.”
The fact that member countries, such as France, can’t agree to back the judgment of the European Commission — which found earlier this year that both North Macedonia and Albania met the criteria to start talks — is indeed a crisis. It tells EU hopefuls that governments don’t trust the Commission’s work, and makes the process appear unpredictable and convoluted, Politico warns.
That doesn’t mean the EU should give up on the Balkans. It means it should look at the impasse as an opportunity to rethink its relationship with the region.
For the EU, this could be the moment to finally focus on developing better tools to deal with autocrats in the region who have few incentives to let go of their informal control of national institutions. The Commission identified this as a problem last year, but has been too timid in its attempt to deal with it, choosing instead to make the enlargement process more complex and cumbersome, and kick the can down the road, Politico suggests.
France claims it wants to rejuvenate the way the EU approaches accession talks but has not taken the initiative in proposing how to do so.
The EU’s approach in the Western Balkans has long relied on dangling the carrot of EU accession as the main — and sometimes only — an incentive to resolve open disputes.
“Take Kosovo and Serbia, for example, where dialogue with Brussels has been driven by the promise that if both countries normalized relations, their path toward EU membership would open up. This stopped working years ago, derailed by talk of border changes and uncertainty over whether the five EU members that do not recognize Kosovo would ever change their minds,” the Brussels-based newspaper warns and adds:
“The prospect of EU membership was a powerful incentive for some. But it also took away attention from the problem itself. Too often, EU foreign policy relied on the promise of eventual membership as a sort of cure-all, rather than an investment in intensive mediation.”
The EU and Western Balkans need to think of new ways to work together. The six countries of the region could find specific policy fields in which they could integrate into the EU, without formally joining the bloc. The EU, in turn, could support these efforts with expertise and resources, including on projects related to the environment or infrastructure.
That way, even if membership turns out to be a long way off than many had hoped, the region could already move closer to the EU. Countries could conceivably — even if it is not realistic yet — at some point become part of the passport-free Schengen zone or the European Economic Area. Eventually joining the EU would then also become easier and quicker, as they would have been gradually integrated into the EU’s structures.
The latest stalling in the accession process for Albania and North Macedonia could also hold a valuable lesson for reformers in the region, who have too long relied on outsiders to support them. Now the message from Brussels is clear: You are on your own – Politico concludes.