In Depth

Is the EU’s enlargement dream over?

Emmanuel Macron’s decision to block accession of North Macedonia and Albania risks pushing Balkans towards Russia

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Emmanuel Macron’s decision to veto plans for further EU enlargement has thrown the long-term future and objectives of the bloc into doubt, and prompted fears that eastern European countries could be pushed towards Russia.

With the UK’s decision to leave the EU dominating headlines, the rush for countries looking to join the bloc has flown relatively under the radar.

Last week at a Brussels summit, the French president shocked fellow leaders by vetoing the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, supported in the latter by Denmark and the Netherlands.

Having first mooted the idea back in 2003, the two Balkan countries were given the provisional go-ahead to start membership talks in June last year after a year’s delay, and “have gone to extraordinary lengths to get to this point”, says the Financial Times.

Albania bowed to EU pressure to vet all its judges by an independent panel, while Macedonia has gone as far as changing its name to settle a two-decade dispute with Greece in a bid to open up a route to the EU.

Then in what the FT’s editorial board described as “an act of neo-Gaullist intransigence”, the French president torpedoed the 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”.

The move has earned Macron the nickname of “the European Trump” in the Balkans, while outgoing European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker publicly denounced it “a historic mistake”.

“The reason for Macron's apparent mission to bring the EU's enlargement to an end is simple,” says Dimitar Bechev in Al Jazeera. “He believes its expansion has failed. Instead of thriving young democracies that could help to speed up European integration, the EU ended up with Victor Orban’s Hungary and a Poland that just elected the populist Law and Justice Party for another term.”

“So, as far as Macron is concerned, North Macedonia and Albania should continue to hang out in the waiting room. And the likes of Hungary, Poland and Romania should stay outside of the EU vanguard clustered around the eurozone. Enlargement is dead. Long live the lean and mean EU, with Germany as the economic powerhouse and Macron's France as the strategic leader,” he writes.

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The Guardian calls the veto “a blow to pro-EU politicians in the small Balkan states” and says the counties shunned by the EU might turn to Russia for support. Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, suggested as much when he said in an interview that “the region cannot rely solely on its western neighbours”.

Politicians in North Macedonia and Albania “have warned that their people's patience with the EU is not unlimited and repeated rejections risk emboldening nationalist and pro-Russian forces” reports The Daily Telegraph.

For Russia, “the Balkans hold significant historic, cultural, and religious connections,” says EUobserver. “But, Russia does not play a significant economic role in the western Balkans.”

According to a report by the German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, only 6.6% of investment in the region comes from Russia, while Moscow's share of regional foreign trade is 3.9% for exports and 5.3% for imports.

These figures might increase once Belgrade signs a free-trade deal with the Eurasian Economic Union today - a Russian-centred customs union with five members.

Yet enthusiam for EYenlargement has been waning in some quarters for some time now. “Democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, fatigue after the Greek eurozone crisis, as well as a widespread view that Romania and Bulgaria were let into the EU too soon, has contributed to doubts about EU expansion in some of the club’s older members,” says The Guardian.

“Despite the spin that most pro-Enlargement and pro-democracy NGOs are freely dispensing, joining the EU is not a ‘reward’ for a bold political step one leader might take while claiming his/her nation’s path is now ‘European, but rather a multi-dimensional and multi-year assessment that a country is undertaking reforms and is capable of meeting new responsibilities and verifiable democratic standards, which in the case of eastern and southern Europe have become rather fuzzy” writes Alex Mally in New Europe.

According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, enlargement in central Europe “had been a top strategic priority for the EU”, but, by contrast, “the Western Balkans has long been low down on the EU’s agenda, particularly after Europe was hit by the financial and migration crises. Preoccupied by these events, the EU had less time and energy to devote to its immediate periphery”.

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