Looking behind France’s Shameful Veto on Albania, N. Macedonia’s EU Accession Talks
The rationale for Macron’s decision doesn’t make sense as purely “enlargement fatique”.
There has already emerged something like a wide-ranging consensus among pundits that French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to block the start of the EU accession negotiations of Albania and North Macedonia has been very, very wrong.
Something like US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Syrian Kurds but on behalf of France and on the intra-EU stage – either disastrous, or disgraceful, or both.
A decision that is hurting the credibility not just of France as an European leader but also of the entire European Union and all values, principles, and other wonderful stuff it stands for.
My first draft of this article was entitled, “Tell Macron You First Start EU Accession Talks, Then Drag Them Out as Needed”, or something of the sort.
The logic of EU accession negotiations is that simple – they are not a guarantee for EU membership by any means, they can last as long as needed, and they might even end up being entirely unsuccessful.
All that depending on the will and capabilities of the EU candidate country to reform and meet the already well-articulated EU criteria.
The best thing about EU accession talks is precisely that – they are this incredibly efficient and amazing instrument to get the EU candidates to reform, and to reform primarily in the interest of their own people.
It’s the most powerful, and perhaps the only major tool in the EU toolbox for relatively successful dealing with the corrupt oligarchies of Eastern Europe in literally forcing them to improve the lives and prospects of their own compatriots, all the while meeting the criteria of the European Union in order to become full-fledged members.
(That’s assuming the candidate countries are from the still underdeveloped corners of Europe to the East and Southeast because if the likes of the already highly EU-convergent Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, you name it, for some reason decided to apply for EU membership, the talks would have more or less a purely harmonizational character.)
Sure, getting the invitation to start negotiations is also a similar strong tool but perhaps not as powerful starting them.
Think about it – once the EU candidate countries are on that track, their ruling elites would feel pressure from all sides to be doing the right things. Those respective societies will have a sense of direction that might have been lacking. Their citizens would be becoming a lot more aware of what this whole EU thing means for their nation and for them as individuals, and would act to hold their countries’ leaderships accountable on that count – at least to some extent.
Having witnessed all positive changes which took place in Bulgaria during its own EU accession talks, I can testify to their significance firsthand.
The only problem in Bulgaria’s was that those changes were profound enough and conclusive enough because the EU negotiations were over too quickly. They should have been dragged out in order to exert greater pressure on Bulgaria’s ruling elites to reform – that was literally what the not-very-empowered Bulgarian civil society was expecting. The EU, however, wrapped them up quite swiftly, within the course of 5-6 years, so while the technicalities were certainly completed and resolved, the Bulgarian society hadn’t changed enough.
What we ended up – we meaning both Bulgaria and the EU as a whole – was a rather unpleasant outcome in which the EU and Bulgaria’s nasty ruling post-communist oligarchy found a way to co-exist – a process and a topic that I discuss in-depth a book of precisely that title (“Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together”).
If one compares the amount of positive changes in Bulgaria during its EU accession talks and during the utterly toothless Cooperation and Verification Mechanism in which the European Commission has been monitoring for 13 years now the country’s supposed “post-accession” progress on its “problem areas” of the rule of law and organized crime, the balance is overwhelmingly in favor of the former period.
Albania and North Macedonia are no more or no less prepared for EU membership than Bulgaria and Romania were when they began their own accession negotiations, a process which has produced great benefits for the people of Bulgaria, Romania, and the entire European Union, albeit not as great as they could have been if there had been more EU reform pressure, including by dragging out those talks.
So there you have it – EU accession negotiations of a reasonable length (meaning longer, rather than shorter) are the best way for the Union to make a difference for itself and the people of the candidate countries.
By vetoing the start of EU membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, for whatever reason, Macron’s France – as well as partly the Netherlands and Denmark – have acted as though the question at hand was whether to admit Albania and North Macedonia in the European Union right away, right now, hands down, no questions asked.
In North Macedonia, they had been concerned about a possible Bulgarian veto (over the not-so-long story over dispute stemming from how it historically used to be a part of Bulgaria before the present-day Macedonian nation was formalized by the Comintern, the former Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and its Bulgarian puppets before their respective dictators Tito and Stalin fell out). At the end there was no Bulgarian veto despite some conditions spelled out by Sofia but the veto came from Paris.
So what was the reason?
The number one explanation for the French veto is the good old “enlargement fatigue.” Which makes no sense whatsoever, especially in this particular case of two relatively tiny countries with a combined total population of a little over 5 million people, against the backdrop of the existing EU’s 500 million (pre-Brexit but still).
Macron’s official justification for the French veto on Albania and North Macedonia’s EU talks has been that the European Union needs to reform itself first (whatever the heck that means) – which is like saying that one should stop doing their job while renovating their house – and that the methodology of EU enlargement needs to be changed (which literally means nothing).
As far as enlargement fatigue goes, discontents from the state of affairs of the EU rant about things ranging from EU development funds all the way to the influx of migrants from Asia and Africa – as though the latter problem has anything to do with fellow European countries and societies working hard to meet the EU’s own criteria in order to become part of the Union, therefore spreading peace, stability, security, and prosperity further and further east!
The enlargement fatigue syndrome is just another case of the Western Europeans not just looking down on the Eastern Europeans but of treating them as their very last priority in the world – for reasons ranging from sheer political idleness to colonialism guilt complexes, which do not apply to Eastern Europeans as they were colonized by non-Europeans.
Sure, enlargement fatigue, French-style, is as good a justification for rejecting EU candidate countries as any. It’s basically telling the respective countries that… “Screw you, we don’t want to deal with you, we don’t care about leaving you the backwater that you are, despite our promises, our commitments, the EU’s underlying principles, and basic common sense.”
Of course, the consequences of such an approach could be dire in the medium run since if the EU doesn’t want or is unable to plug its own geopolitical gaps, other players would be eager to fill them up.
Then there come some bizarre but not implausible explanations as to why Macron and France did what they did with respect to vetoing Albania and North Macedonia’s EU accession talks.
One Croatian newspaper – Croatia being a fellow Western Balkan (former Yugoslavia) country to Albania and North Macedonia, and the latest newcomer to the EU in 2013 – was utterly enraged about the French veto, and accused France of wanting to see Serbia become a member of the EU before any other of the candidates from the region.
Such an accusation might have been based more on historical affiliations than on current realities but if there is any truth to them, they would mean a lot of trouble since in terms of attitude Serbia is far less ready for EU talks and membership that any of the Western Balkan states.
I’ve already mentioned in some articles that the European Union is a Union of “losers”, and that is a great thing – meaning that its member states have experienced total collapse or failure one way or another and have come to grips with it in order to swallow their unconditional “national pride”, thus being able to build something very different, supranational.
That hasn’t quite been the case with the UK, hence its constant uneasiness inside the EU and now Brexit. Despite the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, a fully unnatural and artificial state entity, that hasn’t been the case with Serbia, either, where many still seem to be pining after Greater Serbia, Greater Yugoslavia, or some other vision of greatness the way it was deemed worthy in old times.
The nonetheless highly dubious Serbia-first French scenario aside, another interesting extrapolation on Macron’s EU talks veto on Albania and North Macedonia comes from Russia.
For a while now, one leading pro-democratic Russian political commentator has been talking of a new West – Russia grand bargain under development in which Putin’s Russia would abandon its anyway unsuccessful alliance with China in order to come back to an alliance with the West.
That is said to be grand deal in the making between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with French President Emmanuel Macron acting as the broker. This scenario is allegedly yet to unfold and is conditional on Trump’s political survival and reelection but the recent exchange of POWs between Ukraine and the pro-Russian forces in Donbass is said to have become possible because of it.
So if such a scenario is indeed unfolding, a long shot as it is, would it be conceivable that Macron would agree to a potential tiny goodwill gesture to Moscow such as delaying the course of some Western Balkan countries’ towards member in the European Union – even as France is ratifying the protocol North Macedonia’s accession to NATO?
If the veto on Albania and North Macedonia’s EU accession talks is due to “enlargement fatigue”, that is shameful. If it’s due to some backstage dealings or ulterior motives, that is utterly disgraceful.
In either case, with the French veto, the pro-Western, pro-democracy citizens of Albania and North Macedonia got a giant slap in their faces for no sensible reason despite their own efforts to go the right way. (Let’s not forget that one of those countries even had to change its name for that.)
They know they have a very long road ahead if they want to become full-fledged EU countries but they haven’t even been allowed to get on that road.
Here’s to hoping refusing them that road doesn’t play out horribly for all parties involved.
(Banner image: EPP)