Emmanuel Macron’s EU accession veto is a historic mistake

Emmanuel Macron’s EU accession veto is a historic mistake

21/10 - 14:55 - Bloc should open talks with North Macedonia and Albania, then reform itself. Editorial Board

Emmanuel Macron’s veto against the opening of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia last week may be remembered as a historic mistake that weakens Europe and undermines its aspirations to become a geopolitical power. In an act of neo-Gaullist intransigence, the French president torpedoed EU enlargement policy, deprived the bloc of one of its fundamental foreign policy instruments, undermined trust in its promises and destabilised its Balkan backyard. Not bad for a night’s work. And all this from a leader who claims to exemplify the European spirit of solidarity and co-operation.

North Macedonia and its western Balkan neighbour Albania were given the provisional go-ahead to start membership talks in June last year but with a year’s delay. Four months ago, the EU put the decision on hold once again, promising a green light at last week’s summit in Brussels, only for the two would-be candidates to run into a French “Non”.

The two Balkan countries have gone to extraordinary lengths to get to this point. Albania bowed to EU pressure to vet all its judges by an independent panel, while also giving the EU’s Frontex border agency access to Albanian police operations. North Macedonia has gone considerably further, even changing its name to settle a two-decade dispute with Greece and open up a route to the EU. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, a genuine reformer, showed great courage in agreeing this deal and invested much political capital in it. He may be evicted from power now the EU has reneged on its side of the bargain.

Mr Macron made two arguments for his decision. The first is that the EU needs to strengthen its existing policies and institutions before adding new members. The second is that the enlargement process is itself flawed in that it offers new members full benefits from the start, with no way of correcting subsequent backsliding. These are valid arguments.

The EU does need to streamline decision-making, bolster the eurozone, and many other things. It also needs new mechanisms to hold members to account for flouting democratic standards. It needs to ensure that accession is less about technical compliance than fundamental change to a culture of pluralism, accountability and rule of law. But there is no reason why these could not be addressed once the EU has begun formal accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, a process that will probably take a decade.

There are also deep concerns about organised crime, corruption and the rule of law, especially in Albania, whose mafia has become prominent in some EU countries. Denmark and the Netherlands also rejected Tirana’s bid.

By refusing Skopje as well, however, France showed it is does not want any enlargement at all. It is hard to imagine Mr Macron changing his mind and making a powerful case for it to French voters before elections in 2022.

By closing the door to expansion, France leaves the EU without a credible framework for relations with its neighbourhood, not just the entire western Balkans but countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, for whom membership is still a proposition, albeit distant. If the EU cannot pull its borderlands into a stable orbit, it will struggle to operate an autonomous foreign policy further afield, supposedly a primary objective for Paris. If Mr Zaev is replaced by hardline nationalists in North Macedonia who then oppose the naming agreement with Greece and inflame pan-Albanian sentiment across the region, the Balkans could be heading for dark days again.

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