Reading List – 4th November 2019

Some not very upbeat articles for the first Monday in November

First up, the FT has interviewed the leaders of Noirth Macedonia and Albania in the wake of the EU’s decision not to open accession talks to the countries. France blocked talks with North Macedonia and they, together with Denmark and the Netherlands said no to progress with Albania. Both leaders talk about the EU failing to live up to its side of the bargain having made consistent reforms since 2003. Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia warns that his country may slide backwards as a result.

 

The Guardian reports the results of a poll conducted by Open Societies Foundations across central and Eastern Europe where people say they are not confident about the state of democracy, the conduct of elections or the institutions such as the government and media. However there does seem to be a willingness among so-called ‘Generation Z’ respondents to seek to make their life better.

 

CNN reports that Facebook will apply its policy of not fact-checking adverts paid for by political parties or candidates to the UK general election. There are widespread warnings that this could lead to massive disinformation campaigns likely to mislead voters. The company has confirmed, however, that it will allow its third party fact-checkers to establish the veracity of non-party groups such as Leave.EU.

The Electoral Reform Society has also reiterated its campaign for action to prevent ‘dark ads’ from affecting the election.

 

 

EU expansion decision will endanger reforms in Western Balkans

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.

Albania’s local elections cancelled amidst political protests

Albania is heading for a political showdown between President Ilir Meta and Prime Minister Edi Rama. The President has said he is cancelling local elections scheduled for June 30th but the Prime Minister insists they will go ahead.

The President’s actions come after many weeks of street protests led by anti-government protesters who accuse the government of fraud and corruption. Petrol bombs were thrown at the Prime Minister’s office before activists were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannon.

The opposition wants the government to step down and call an early general election. In the meantime they planned to boycott the local polls.

This situation comes at the worst time for the government of Albania which is looking to open talks on joining the EU.