Is the promise made from Thessaloniki about the European perspective of the Western Balkans region lost? Is it worth it to accept painful compromises, as North Macedonia did, if EU membership is no longer an option? These are just some of the questions which have been going through minds of Balkan leaders after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, signalled a red light for opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Other member states, especially Germany, and most European officials, labelled Macron’s decision a “historic mistake”. Aiming to curb Berlin’s anger and to present itself as a constructive and stable partner who does not obstruct the enlargement process, France proposed a reform of the accession process.
What Does the French Reform Propose?
Seven phases, gradual involvement with the opening of EU funds to candidate countries, but also stricter conditions and the possibility for a country to be returned to the previous phase unless sufficient progress is made are the main ideas France stands for. According to the Paris proposal, negotiations should not be divided into 35 negotiation chapters anymore, but into seven stages based on specific areas. Following the successful implementation of reforms at a given stage, the candidate country would become a EU member in that area and would have at its disposal the funds used by all other member states. Without the successful closing of a phase, it is not possible to make progress in other areas. Also, if the state does not fulfil its commitments at any stage, it would be possible to return it to one of the earlier stages, which would keep membership “on thin ice”.
Generosity or a “Mean” Plan?
What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that the rule of law is in the first phase. This means that, without the rule of law, freedom of the media and building stable institutions, it will not be possible to make progress in any other area. This approach is completely opposite to the existing one, since the rule of law Chapters 23 and 24 open at the beginning of the accession negotiations and close at the end, precisely because they are the most complex and difficult ones, especially when it comes to the countries that lack a democratic tradition and political and institutional capacities to conduct such reforms. Furthermore, after Croatia joined, the EU decided to declare those two chapters to be the “blocking chapters”, which means that if a country does not show enough progress in the rule of law, it cannot open further chapters. Therefore, French expectations that Western Balkan countries can meet the high standards regarding the rule of law at the very beginning of the process seem to be either an idealistic naivete or an intentional catch which raises the suspicion that there is an intention to “lock” Western Balkan countries into this initial stage for a long time, playing on the generosity of France to open funds to the negotiating countries. This is a vicious circle because if the EU conditions its financial assistance on completion of the first stage, candidate countries will not be able to implement the highly costly reforms necessary to improve the state of the rule of law.
How Will Reform Affect the Region?
However, it is not clear how this new methodology would affect the states that are currently negotiating with the EU, such as Serbia and Montenegro. In case the future reforms include them as well, the big question is how the chapters which are already open or already closed can be converted into new stages and in which phase of the process those countries would be placed. This can be especially tricky in the case of Montenegro, because it has already opened 32 out of 33 chapters. It is not certain whether the reform of the accession process would pull Serbia and Montenegro back to the very beginning of the negotiations and put them on a par with North Macedonia and Albania. According to the statements given by Serbian and Montenegrin officials, both countries do not think it would be good to change the rules in the middle of the process. Besides the fact that those two countries are concerned that the new methodology would push them backwards, there is also a significant amount of mistrust for the honesty of French intentions to speed up and modernize the process. Not only are the candidate states cautious about the French proposal, but the rest of the member states too. Nine other countries led by Austria presented a counter-proposal in which they agree to the reform of the accession process, but with guarantees that it will secure speeding up EU enlargement.
WB as a Challenge for Geopolitical Commission
The new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Layen, made it clear that the EU will keep its sixteen-year-old promise made from Thessaloniki and stay committed to the enlargement. That is also in accordance with the “geopolitical” aim of the new Commission to position the EU as an influential and significant power. However, in order to achieve that, the EU has to demonstrate that it is capable of dealing with the challenges in its closest neighborhood and successfully finish the process of unification of the continent begun after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The drama around the new methodology for the accession process and the European perspective of the region would have its epilogue at the summit in Zagreb in May. European leaders promised they will present a new, reformed negotiating process and concrete further steps. All in all, prior to giving a big red NO to North Macedonia and Albania, the French President Emmanuel Macron did not expect that his decision would take the Western Balkans back into the spotlight. Having hoped to slow the region’s EU path, he created a desperately needed impulse for the enlargement of the EU and the European future of the region.