(CN) — The European Union’s expansion into the Balkans is stalling and that’s prompting policymakers and experts to warn that the region may turn to Russia, China and Turkey for trade and military protection.
At a meeting of European leaders on Oct. 17-18, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the start of a process to allow North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU. France was backed by Denmark and the Netherlands against opening talks with Albania.
The veto was a shock to North Macedonia, a small mountain nation of 2 million people. Previously known as Macedonia, the country changed its name to be able to join the EU and end a long-running and bitter dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia, which is also a region of Greece. After France’s veto, North Macedonia’s prime minister resigned and new elections were called.
Bringing the politically volatile Balkan region into the EU is considered a pillar of the EU bloc’s foreign policy. Doing so, it’s argued, will ease tensions in the EU’s back yard, ward off competition from foreign powers and show Europe’s openness to include large Muslim populations within its boundaries.
Instead, France’s veto is seen as an act of self-harm for the EU because Balkan nations may think the road to EU membership will be painfully long and turn into a dead end. As a consequence, the Balkans may turn away from Europe and toward Russia, China and Turkey, which are eager for footholds in Europe.
Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina also are seeking to join the EU. The EU entered into talks to add Turkey as well, but those negotiations are in a deep freeze. At a 2003 summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, the EU declared that Balkan nations were candidates to join the bloc. Only Croatia has been admitted since then.
The reasons for Macron’s veto are multifaceted and reflect discomfort in parts of Europe with adding more members, especially politically unstable and economically weak ones such as those found in the Balkans, where corruption and organized crime are rife. Skeptics also point out that the addition of countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have been problematic. Hungary and Poland are run by authoritarian governments and corruption remains widespread in Eastern Europe.
There’s also an element of xenophobia when it comes to the Balkans: Countries such as Albania and Bosnia have large Muslim populations and anti-Muslim sentiment is strong in Europe. For example, would the EU take so long to include an independent Scotland or Iceland?
With his veto, Macron has other aims too. He’s trying to set himself up as Europe’s leading statesman and to centralize power in the sprawling and discordant EU.
“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 said after issuing his veto.
That veto is further evidence of a growing rivalry between France and Germany. In addition, Macron’s move may play well at home with French right-wing voters who back his main rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Since the October veto, some EU leaders have scrambled to assure the Balkans that the EU hasn’t turned its back on them, with several top leaders calling Macron’s veto a “historic mistake” and incoming European Commission leaders pledging to make the Balkans a priority.
On Tuesday, David Sassoli, the European Parliament’s president, was in North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, to assure the country that the EU is eager to see it join the club.
“This is not the end of the road. This is just a hurdle that we will soon overcome,” Sassoli said, according to Euractiv, a European news service. “I strongly encourage you not to lose hope.”
But that’s precisely what may happen, experts warn.
“By ‘torpedoing’ North Macedonia’s and Albania’s accession hopes, the EU has destroyed most of its credibility and leverage in the Western Balkans,” wrote Milos Damnjanovic, the head of research at BIRN Consultancy, a political risk analysis firm in Belgrade, Serbia.
Damnjanovic warned in an opinion piece that the veto may end up being a “historic act of European self-harm.”
“The promise, or carrot, of EU accession has been like a geopolitical magnet that has helped to keep the countries of the Balkans on a Western, democratic, free-market path, with part of that course being respect for human rights, liberal values and the rule of law,” he wrote.
He said that as hopes of EU membership fade, the region’s countries are beginning “to backslide in many of these areas, showing ever more brazen undemocratic and illiberal tendencies and flirting with other, non-Western players, keen to get footholds in Europe.”
The concern is that Balkan countries will give up on trying to become EU members. Becoming an EU member is a years-long process known as accession, during which a country must adopt EU law and show that it can apply and enforce it. It also must undertake economic reforms and open its markets. In return the EU offers development funds, and a new EU member and its citizens gain access to the EU’s single market, the largest trading bloc in the world, and take part in European elections and politics.
Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said the Balkans “have become unwitting victims of a messy falling-out” between Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Macron has sought to make the EU work more closely together, but Merkel has rebuffed his plans on integration.
“In public, everything seems rosy between the French and German leaders,” Dempsey wrote in Strategic Europe, a Carnegie publication. “In reality, the relationship has become so debilitating that internal reforms and the bloc’s further enlargement have all but stopped.”
France has long been skeptical of EU enlargement and had deep reservations about the addition of the United Kingdom and Spain in the past. Germany has favored the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe, which has been beneficial to Germany and its export-driven economy. In Paris, though, there is a perception that the geographical center of Europe has shifted east toward Berlin since Eastern European countries were added.
For now, Dempsey said, “Enlargement remains frozen, and the EU is at sea.”
Recent events confirm that the EU’s vacillation over the Balkans provide an opening for Russia, Turkey and China to gain more leverage in the region.
In late October, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, a sign of waning commitment to join the EU. Serbia is frustrated with the slow pace of membership talks with the EU.
Then on Oct. 24, China and Serbia inaugurated the first railway line capable of taking freight between China and Serbia.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)