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Ever since the EU-WB Sofia Summit, organised under the auspices of the Bulgarian presidency in May 2018, it has become crystal clear that further enlargement of the Union will have to be put to a halt. As Emmanuel Macron won his presidency on the idea that the EU will need to be renewed without any delay, he openly conditioned the entrance of the Western Balkans to the EU upon the success rate of his EU-oriented reforms. With this, Macron has shattered the dreams of those who thought that the year of 2018 will be a year of opportunity for the Western Balkans. Why did France toughen its stance towards the Western Balkan region? The reasons are twofold: Macron has been facing unrest at home and shrinking popularity, while most of the Western Balkan countries failed to live up to the task of seriously committing to the comprehensive reforms. In the following, these two arguments explaining Macron’s stance towards the enlargement are laid out.
With his ambitious agenda, Macron took the front stage of Europe in the midst of Brexit, a rise of populism, and the refugee crisis. Yet, what has shaken Macron’s administration the most was not the resistance of the member states, but rather the struggles at home, as his popularity started to crumble soon after he took power. At the time when the EU-WB enlargement Summit in Sofia was being held in May 2018, according to a survey, 60% of French voters were unhappy with the French president. Such a low score represented a significant blow to Macron, as it was a stark contrast to 2017 when he won a land-slide victory in the presidential elections, while his movement La République En Marche! acquired the majority of votes in the French parliamentary elections. The negative trend in popularity became particularly evident after his domestic reforms gave birth to the now wide-known Gilets jaunes – a movement able to mobilise masses to an unprecedented degree, and one with violent methods frequently used during protests. In that unfavourable context, no wonder the enlargement was unable to become a priority topic for Macron. In fact, his avoidance to put stress on enlargement is best explained by the fact that the French citizens are, according to the Eurobarometer from May 2018, among the least supportive of the enlargement in the whole EU (61% oppose it, 31% support it, and 8% have no answer). Therefore, knowing that the issue of enlargement remains widely unpopular among the French citizens, while facing unrest from citizens ranging from left to right, it becomes clear why Macron decided not to over-sensitise his ‘enlargement-unfriendly’ voters.
In addition, Macron’s reserved position vis-à-vis the region shows, in fact, that France is deeply unsatisfied with the overall pace of the reform process of the Western Balkans. The unfortunate reality is reinforced by the fact that the European Commission has already used the term ‘elements of state capture’ to define the state of affairs in each of the WB countries, in the so-called EU-WB enlargement strategy published in February 2018. Similarly, according to the 2019 Freedom House Report, all of the Balkan countries are still partially-free. Notably, such ratings represent a major setback for Serbia – at least in comparison to the previous years when it held the status of a free country – showing that it is prone to further democratic backsliding. Therefore, had the regional countries been fully committed throughout the past years to the EU integration process – most notably in terms of rule of law reforms and good neighbourly relations – France would not have had as big of an incentive or excuse to block the almost-ready countries from joining the club. As the EU is witnessing major problems with illiberal leaders from Hungary and Poland, the enlargement-skeptic position of France can be indeed be perceived as reasonable.
Yet, by indiscriminately shutting the door to all WB countries, in fear that they might follow the path of illiberal backsliding, the actions of Macron’s administration have the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, France’s narrow view of enlargement has already caused a slow-down in the region. Even when some WB countries have made notable progress – like Albania in terms of judicial reforms, and North Macedonia in terms of resolving the name dispute with Greece – France was reluctant to give in, especially in terms of opening the accession negotiation process with these two countries.
Another of Macron’s flaws lies in his inability to understand that some things are not to be spoken out loud. In politics, stating the obvious can go against the grain. What Macron said on the enlargement was something that the regional leaders, as well as experts following the EU integration process of the WB, have already been well-familiar with. Looking at the pace of closure of negotiating chapters, in case of Montenegro and Serbia, it was clear all along that these countries will not be able to close all of them by 2023 and then join in 2025 (as Juncker proposed as an indicative date for accession). If that is the case, then France was unnecessarily sending a negative message to the region and its citizens. To make the matter worse, Macron’s Minister for European Affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, re-affirmed France’s position during her visit to Belgrade in February 2019, thus leaving no space whatsoever for flexible interpretations of Macron’s position, which might have otherwise given some hope to the EU perspective of the Balkans.
Now that the damage is done and knowing that the 2025 perspective is fully out of sight, the leaders will be less incentivised to push harder for reforms, whereas populists and EU-sceptics from the region might use these circumstances to their advantage, by promoting the narrative that “the EU doesn’t want us.” What Macron’s administration should have done is insist on the need to step-up reform efforts, both in private meetings with regional leaders and public statements aimed towards the general public, while keeping the perspective open as a slight possibility. In that sense, even if WB countries were to fail in closing all chapters by 2023, it would be clear that the EU is not to blame, while the citizens of the region would not need lose hope ex ante.
As the membership of the Balkans is in the Union’s very own “economic, political, and security interest” as well, as the Commission rightfully noted in its enlargement strategy, Macron’s intentions might prove to be counterproductive, thus hurting the interests of both the Balkans and the EU. Since enlargement consists of an increasing number of conditions, the carrot is needed as well.