The European Council’s failure to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania could mark a turning point for peace in the Western Balkans.
The European Council’s decision to block membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania last month caused outrage in those countries, and beyond. The council took its decision in spite of the European Commission’s recommendation to proceed. Most member states actually agreed with the commission, but three – France, Denmark, and the Netherlands – withheld support. And, among these, the French were the most vocally critical, ultimately moving to block any progress towards enlargement at that meeting.
France received wide criticism for its actions, both inside and outside the EU. It countered that potential member states should not be able to carry right on through the accession process even when their performance falls short in key areas, especially on rule of law matters. Indeed, analysts have raised similar concerns, identifying faults in the current arrangements. Chief among these are inadequacies in the rule of law, including democratisation and human rights. The French are right that there are problems with enlargement policy. This is a debate that, by now, has a long pedigree: observers have pointed to Turkey to show that opening membership negotiations does not necessarily lead to progress.
But critics have got much of this the wrong way round: the Turkish case is more of a warning of how things can go wrong once the EU fails a candidate state. Susanne Fraczek’s extensive work on human rights conditionality towards Turkey shows that between 1999-2005 Turkey pursued significant human rights reforms because of the incentive of starting accession negotiations. From this perspective, therefore, the EU’s decision to open talks with Turkey was justified. The credibility of EU policy at this time was also visible in its threat to Turkey in 2004 to postpone this decision if Turkey failed to adopt the new penal code in line with EU standards. In doing this, the EU was effectively applying negative conditionality in the rule of law area.
After this, however, the EU’s conditionality policy began to break down, becoming highly inconsistent as member states would block individual chapters and cite bilateral reasons as they did so. This was accompanied by arguments that suggested that Turkey’s identity and culture were fundamentally different from the rest of the EU, being a Muslim country partially situated in Asia. As such behaviour continued, domestic reforms in Turkey slowed down. When the European Council blocked the opening of eight chapters in 2006, the justification it made was not that Turkey had made insufficient progress on human rights and the rule of law, but was instead linked to the Cyprus issue. Member states increasingly began to criticise Turkey on human rights grounds, especially from 2011 onwards, but nevertheless continued to reject the commission’s recommendation to open Chapter 23 – a move which could have allowed for greater engagement on human rights.
The close link between EU integration and domestic stability is highly visible in the case of North Macedonia
The story of Turkey is reminiscent of the current situation in the Western Balkans. In 2018, North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement with Greece, effectively giving to a neighbouring country a veto over its own identity. It did so for the sake of EU accession. Yet, this year North Macedonia was denied the reward of talks, not because of its actual progress to date, but because of France’s and others’ argument that the EU enlargement policy itself is flawed. This is a dangerous game, in which many things could go wrong if the EU perspective fades for the countries of the Western Balkans. The Prespa Agreement is a particularly important case, as the enactment of its provisions could now suffer as a result of North Macedonia’s rejection. This is not only because a different government could come to power in the election planned for the spring – which is taking place because of France’s move – but also because Prespa’s implementation is specifically linked to the EU negotiation process: as more accession chapters are opened, the agreement’s provisions are to be carried out in an increasing number of areas.
The close link between EU integration and domestic stability is highly visible in the case of North Macedonia. Once the country’s EU integration process and accession to NATO stalled after 2009, internal political destabilisation gradually increased, accompanied by a rapid deterioration of democratic governance and media freedom. Violent ethnic incidents with the local Albanian minority also accelerated prior to the 2016 election, when the nationalist VMRO DPMNE government lost power and the country began its journey towards an agreement with Greece.
The EU also represents a strong influence in relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Despite the fact that many Belgrade-Pristina agreements have only been partially implemented, or have gone unimplemented altogether, the two parties have at least been talking to each other. Although the process broke down a year ago, a return to fighting remains unlikely for the time being. What politically might not seem much of a success appears very different when looked at through the security lens. If Serbia held out no hope of ever joining the EU, then it may well have begun following a very different path. Despite all the shortcomings in the area of democracy and human rights, the Serbian government continues to appear committed to EU integration. It is worth remembering that the ruling SNS party split from the Serbian Radical Party over EU integration in 2008, with the departing SNS fraction leaving to pursue a pro-EU policy. The bottom line is that the EU’s enlargement policy has had serious security benefits in the region – something which European leaders appreciate too little, and which may now have gone irretrievably out of the window following the French veto.
There is a certain perverseness to France’s decision to block accession talks
Indeed, besides preparing candidates for membership by supporting reforms in various areas – chief among them the rule of law, democracy, and the protection of human rights – the objectives of EU enlargement also include “fostering peace and stability in regions close to the EU’s borders”. The especial importance of France’s decision is that it has exposed a long-standing tension within enlargement policy, and probably now rendered it inadequate to the task of even fostering peace and stability. This is at least in part because the EU’s worries about a breakdown in security in the Western Balkans have, over many years, now led it to inconsistent application of the membership process. Candidate countries may, for example, make progress on security issues, with the promise of opening new chapters – such as with the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations.
But, over time, the EU has declined to press some of the Western Balkans states much harder than it has on rule of law issues, shying away from applying sanctions and from refusing to upgrade relations with candidate countries – with all the increased risks to security that such moves would entail. Now, Western Balkans countries may not even seek to make progress on security issues, never mind the rule of law. There is a certain perverseness to what has happened: countries like France point to issues around democracy as reasons not to proceed, when in fact the EU’s uneven application of its own policy is one of the reasons Western Balkans countries have made poor progress on precisely these matters.
Without the power of EU integration conditionality, relations between some countries in the region could deteriorate as politicians feel readier to fuel tensions with their neighbours to boost nationalist credentials. A significant move in 2018 saw Kosovo and Montenegro agree a border demarcation agreement. But this would have been much more difficult without EU pressure pushing back against fierce resistance in Kosovo from opposition parties claiming the deal would wrongly hand over some 8,000 hectares of territory to Montenegro.
Amid the increasingly taut debate about reform of enlargement policy, EU leaders should recognise – urgently – its merits in the area of security, as well as its internal contradictions. Conditionality has been a difficult balancing exercise, where legitimate concerns about security have limited what the EU has done to ensure compliance even from candidate states. By halting or slowing down the enlargement process, these limits will not disappear. In fact, they may only grow as Western Balkans governments weigh up the worth of meeting the EU’s requests and then trying to sell this to their electorates – voters can all now see that domestic pain may not be worth it if the EU prefers kicking the can down the road. Securing power by other means may become the order of the day.
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.