Photo:  www.kremlin.ru 

When the small Balkan country formerly known as The Republic of Macedonia changed its name to The Republic of North Macedonia, following nearly 30 years of negotiation with Greece, it was widely seen as one of the last major hurdles the country needed to get over in order to start accession talks with the European Union(EU) along with its neighbour Albania.

But it was not to be, as anticipation quickly gave way to confusion and exacerbation. In October, French president Emmanuel Macron blocked preliminary talks with the two countries before they could get under way. Macron argued that the EU needs to reexamine  in which new countries get accepted into the union before going ahead with any new talks despite being the only EU leader to think so and facing heavy criticism for it. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the executive European Commission, calling it “A grave historic error”.  What is then at stakes in the western Balkans for the EU and why are its leaders so up in arms at each other over it? 

In one way it’s simply a matter of reputation for the EU and its leaders. For years the EU has been  been dangling the proverbial carrot of accession into the union to encourage the Albanians and North Macedonians to go through reform efforts aimed at improving economic stability, reducing corruption and increasing rule of law. The promise of accession being one of the main reasons for North Macedonia to change its name as Greece would block any talks if the old name stood. Importantly though, this was not an uncontroversial move with a majority of the North Macedonia boycotting the referendum held to change the name of the country. For the EU to renege on its perceived promise of talks of membership understandably left a lot of people in Skopje and Tirana feeling deceived and questioning the worth of promises from the EU.

Playing in to this is the bigger picture of world politics. The western Balkans have, in recent years, seen a significant increase of Chinese investment as part of the country’s massive Belt and Road initiative, where large infrastructure projects in target countries are financed by Chinese loans with the aim of increasing trade between China. The project risk leading to the EU’s  power and influence in the region becoming marginalised by China as the big projects launched by the investments have had hugely positive effects for the struggling economies in the region, at least in the short term. For the EU this isn’t only about losing economic influence. There are real fears that the attractive loans being issued will balloon government debt, as it has in Montenegro where government debt shot up to over 70% following large Chinese sponsored building projects. For more robust economies such a debt level does not need to be of much real concern but for the relatively undeveloped economies in the region, it might end up destabilising the region’s fragile economy if the expected growth ends up not materialising and the loans are not paid back. The prospect of another economic crisis bubbling up from the Balkans is likely to keep some EU politicians like Emmanuel Macron up at night. 

Vladimir Putin (left) and Xi Jinping (right) at belt and road forum. Photo: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/60393

Then there is the old boogieman of the Balkans – Russia. Russia has long held strategic interest in the region and maintains strong ties with its strongest power, Serbia. Much like in Eastern Europe, the country maintains a hawkish stance when it comes to the relation between the former Yugoslav countries and the west. Russia’s efforts to exert influence over the region have lead it to, cutting gas supplies and food imports and allegedly fuelling nationalist sympathies, as well as attempting to instigate a coup in Montenegro in 2017 to prevent it from joining NATO. For many within the EU, it is therefore vital to appear to be a viable option to both Russia and China. Having potentially economically and politically unstable neighbours with ties to adversarial and authoritarian governments so close is far from an ideal strategic situation for the trading block.  

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, it is for these precise reasons that Macron justified pushing the membership bids of North Macedonia and Albania into the future, arguing that the decision structure of the EU and its accession process needs to be overhauled in order to continue further expansion of the European project.

Likening the EU to a house, Macron talked about the UKs difficulties leaving this “house” and the lack of financial commitment from some of its other members, mainly Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden as issues that needed to be dealt with before further expansion could begin. In a short paper issued by the French a proposed plan for future membership negotiations with the North Macedonians and Albanians were laid out. Within the paper there are specific weight on the need for economic, social and judicial reform being more concretely enforced and incentivised than currently. Under the French plan, in order for the countries to eventually be accepted as members of the EU, they would need to follow a stricter line of reform in order to bring their countries into line with EU standards in these three main areas. As a whole, the French want guarantees against letting another potential Greece join the union in economic terms. As well as guard against future potential backsliding in political and judicial freedoms once membership is achieved, such as potential Hungary and Poland.

Photo: webmicha

The EU thus has a choice to make going forward. Will the EU, as was done with many former eastern bloc nations, allow these Balkan countries into the union even if they’re not yet quite up to EU-code,on the hopes that membership will allow for economic growth and financial stability and as a result of this increased rule of law and a convergence with European social and political values? This runs the inevitable risk of deepening the existing divides within the union, as one of the main forces driving Brexit was the British wanting to limit the amount of labour immigration coming from poorer European nations. Furthermore, in the event of another economic crisis hitting the world economy, the western Balkan countries would likely be among the most exposed in Europe with its underdeveloped financial systems and high public debt. At a time when some of the biggest net monetary contributors to the union, namely Germany, has expressed hesitation about the level of future financial commitment to the shared budget.

Or does the EU focus on strengthening the ties between the existing members of the union and risk looking unreliable on the world stage for breaking its promise to North Macedonia and Albania? . Not only that, but also run the risk that these countries instead turn to China and Russia for economic and political support as an alternative. In other words, risk that the western Balkans go the way of Turkey. 

Once a promising candidate for membership into the union. The country began shifting in a strong man/ authoritarian direction following years of delay and backtracking on the part of the EU and is now seeking closer ties with Russia. While, at the same time, leaving the economy on shaky footing and threatens to drag the European economy down with it, should it fail. No doubt these are interesting times for the decision makers in Brussels and Paris.  

Samuel Hederen