Without a credible path to EU membership, the Western Balkans could easily succumb to the lure of regional nationalism – and to generous Russian, Turkish, and Chinese offers in the EU’s own back yard.
To say that Emmanuel Macron has been busy on the European and international stage since he came to power in 2017 is something of a euphemism. But this year’s post-summer period has been particularly frenetic, even by the standards of the French president. He has attempted to broker a conversation between Iran and the United States, launched a new Russia initiative – and now vetoed accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia at this month’s European Council. Macron also refused to decouple the accession processes of Albania and North Macedonia, although other member states agreed too that Albania was not ready.
His move has made Macron the object of the ire for a number of European partners and European Union member states. That said, the result was no surprise: he has long been adamant that further integration is needed before further enlargement. Macron’s integration drive has included demands for internal EU reform, especially reform of the eurozone, where he is experiencing resistance from Germany, much to his dismay. He has also called for reform of the enlargement process itself, whose deficiencies include a strong tendency towards irreversible forward motion once set in train, the major counter-example of Turkey aside.
It is no secret that the French public is wary of enlarging an EU that is already perceived as dysfunctional: there is a weariness of the EU’s fragility and the pro-European sentiment. A recent ECFR survey showed that Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, and France were the countries most reluctant to see Western Balkans countries joining the EU in the coming decade. Macron has made it his mission to demonstrate to French citizens how the EU can be both effective, agile, and humane: this is part of the explanation behind his flurry of initiatives over the past few years.
In explaining his European Council decision, the president said, “We need a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process, a real credibility and a strategic vision of who we are and our role”. Macron remains convinced that, without reform, the EU will be diluted and possibly paralysed by the entry of new members.
So, will this be Macron’s great “historic error”, as Jean-Claude Juncker called it?
In the Balkans itself the EU’s ‘vegeterian’ power risks being little match for the carnivorous geopolitics of the region – and potentially now more than ever, after this European Council. Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic has already told the Financial Times that the EU’s decision has left the region feeling it cannot rely on its western neighbours alone. His words suggest he feels vindicated in his decision to allow Russia to take over Serbia’s energy sector and invite it to carry out regular military exercises with Serbia. Indeed, at this very moment, Russian S-400s are making their way to Serbia, to participate in the Slavic Shield 2019 joint drill. And it is not only Russia that offers Western Balkans countries more attractive prospects too: China’s extensive infrastructure investment in the region may have been subject to criticism from Brussels, but on the ground it appears to fill a void that the EU does not care about.
Halting North Macedonia's accession prospects means that the EU has failed to acknowledge the incredible efforts that went into securing the Prespa agreement
The strategy of picking and choosing between east and west – the balancing act perfected by late Yugoslav leader Tito – remains popular in Belgrade and elsewhere in the Balkans. A popular saying among observers of the region is that what Slobodan Milosevic failed to achieve through force, Vucic will achieve through peace. With almost no opposition and or free media domestically, the Serbian leadership looks now also geopolitically uncontested externally. All this could lead to a regional rearrangement which leaves little place for the EU, with the region split between Serbia-led and Albania-led spheres of influence. In the absence of a single entity powerful enough to corral the competing forces, this would simply be a logical outcome. For Albania, this could mean the return of the Greater Albania movement, a vision uniting Albanians in Albania in Kosovo, North Macedonia, and beyond.
And, from the point of view of North Macedonia, destabilisation through its Albanian minority is the last thing it would need. Halting its accession prospects means that the EU has failed to acknowledge the incredible efforts that went into securing the Prespa agreement. For people living in North Macedonia, part of going along with the agreement was the prospect of making progress towards EU membership. That deal with Greece and the bilateral friendship agreement with Bulgaria should have opened up space for the government to finally turn to much-needed domestic reform. But Zoran Zaev’s administration, which was banking heavily on the promise of EU accession talks, has now moved to early elections in April 2020. Political battles over symbolism will continue prevailing in the politics of the country, with the opposition VMRO party already attacking the Prespa agreement anew.
The security situation in the Western Balkans is one that could deteriorate quickly if nationalist forces and third party actors become more active there. This is a problem the EU could – and still can – avoid. It needs to start talking credibly with the countries of the region to devise new ways to make progress, even if enlargement is not in sight. Appointing an envoy for the Western Balkans would be a good start – the US already has two.
If the EU spends the next few years concentrating only on its future relationship with Britain, and only belatedly comes up with a working model for the Balkans, it will already be too late. A year can make all the difference. Being strategic about the scale of the Western Balkans’ problems – and about the size of the EU’s own leverage – will be a sign of the EU’s own geopolitical maturity. Macron, too, needs to acknowledge this. Otherwise, the EU will end up in another credibility crisis, or – more seriously – a full-blown security crisis in the region it acknowledges to be its immediate neighbourhood.
There is a contradiction between the reset on Russia Macron presented in August – which he presented as a necessity in the context of a Sino-Russian rapprochement that would not play in Europe’s favour – and his attitude to the Balkans, whose potential as a geopolitical battleground he has overlooked. There is little doubt that Turkey, Russia, and China will continue to pursue their political and economic priorities in the Western Balkans – potentially to the detriment of the region itself and to EU countries’ own interests.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.