The EU has failed to agree to move onto the next step of enlargement as France, the Netherlands and Denmark have blocked the current hopes of North Macedonia and Albania joining. There have been warnings that this move will endanger liberal reforms in those countries as well as lessen the chances of a full peace settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.
The issue was discussed as part of this week’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. It has been reported that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happier to see progress made in the case of North Macedonia but he, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, see EU structural reforms as a higher priority and so blocked further discussions before the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb next May.
This decision will have a number of knock-on effects. In North Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has a staked a lot on achieving agreements with Greece that resulted in changes including that of the name of his country. That, together with expensive constitutional, economic and political reforms, were all geared towards starting the long process of EU membership. Without the hope of membership, Zaev’s credibility with his electorate will take a tumble and the reform process will likely stall.
Albania has a constitutional crisis of its own already and the country was seen to be less ready for EU membership, but the reform process had been started and will almost certainly now end, significantly endangering anti-corruption efforts and action against organised crime.
The EU decision may also affect the Kosovo/Serbia debate. Both countries had expressed a desire to join the EU, albeit on a slower track than Albania and North Macedonia. One of the key requirements for their membership to progress would be a lasting peace deal and border resolution. There will now be less incentive to make this happen.
And whilst the EU and its member states will continue to be important partners for the countries of the Western Balkans, this decision will leave the door open for stronger ties with other major players. Russia is a traditional ally for Serbia and has major interests in the whole region. Likewise, China is investing heavily as part of its Belt and Road Initiative having put funding into Serbian railways and leasing the port of Piraeus in Greece among other projects.
In reality, the timetable towards EU enlargement may be relatively unaffected by this decision. Completing the different chapters of the acquis communautaire is a lengthy process and could have been stalled in a more diplomatic way had member states wished. The negative effects could have been avoided had North Macedonia alone been given the green light with a warning that formal accession would only take place after the organisation’s structural reforms had been completed. This choice, however, raises major concerns over the credibility of any further enlargement.
UPDATE (21st October 2019): North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, apparently furious at the decision of the EU, has called snap elections to allow his country “to decide what path it wants to follow”. The election is set to take place on April 12th 2020.