The EU Summit is expected to take a final decision on the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, although France seems unwilling to change its position to postpone the decision-making process until the European negotiation format is re-arranged
Today the Summit of Heads of States and Governments starts in Brussels, with a busy agenda dealing with pressing issues like EU budget, climate, and imminent Brexit. The Summit leaders are expected to deliver a decision also on opening the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, following last June’s Summit declaration that EU member states needed more time to examine the reports issued by the Commission. However, the hopes for a positive signal from EU seem to vanish, following the failure by the last General Affairs Council meeting to agree on a common position for the two Western Balkan countries, mainly due to the resistance of France, followed by the Netherlands and Denmark.
Politicisation of the enlargement process
In the last decade, the EU integration process has gone through a new round of politicisation by the member states and this is primarily linked to the multiple crises that the Union has been experiencing, from migration to Brexit and so on. The politicisation process has allowed domestic public opinions to become part of the broader discussions and contestations, thus resulting in growing polarisation. This has provided a chance for populist and extremist parties to instrumentalise the EU for their political benefits.
This "return to politics" at the European level has witnessed certain member states’ reorientation of political agendas, influenced by their constituencies, towards the predominance of national interests over the Union’s collective benefit. Enlargement has become a scapegoat of politicisation. The advancement of the Western Balkans’ integration is perceived as premature and public opinion's opposition against further enlargement is high in the Netherlands (60%), France (58%), and Germany (57%), as shown by Eurobarometer.
France's persistent rejection
France has developed over time a distant relationship with the Balkans, relying on the EU’s efforts to promote democratic reforms in these countries. President Macron has already declared that the EU needs to first reform itself and then move towards further enlargement. France's top priority now seems to be the redefinition of its EU leadership role in the post-Brexit phase, as shown by the efforts paid in the process of establishing the new Commission led by Von der Leyen. Moreover, the Brits have often been perceived as the ones who have brought the Union at this stage, by promoting widening – instead of deepening – EU integration.
The French resistance towards the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia is motivated by rule of law concerns as well as the non-performing EU negotiation format which allows for the reversibility of undertaken reforms. Moreover, the negative perceptions of the French public opinion over the past enlargement waves and EU as such, coupled with the number of requests for asylum from Albanians, does not ease the burden and feeds the far right's rhetoric.
“We are under tremendous political pressure now”, declared last week a French official who requested anonymity. Following an ambivalent behaviour, he added that “we will not say no, but we cannot say yes”. “Today the negotiation process is very fluent and exhausting at the same time. The leverage that the EU has is not what we think it should have”, stated a collegue of him. “We aim at a gradual and less technocratic process of integration of the Western Balkans”, he then added. The French idea is to integrate the region in a step by step process, which allows the Western Balkan leaders to “understand what collective responsibility of EU membership means”.
Albania and North Macedonia
France's resistance seems stronger with regards to granting a positive response to Albania vis-a-vis North Macedonia. Despite the attempt by the German government to persuade the French leadership through the introduction of new benchmarks for Albania before the opening of negotiations, a positive sign at this stage seems "mission impossible".
French concerns over Albania are linked to an unsatisfactory track record in the fight against organised crime and corruption. In the past three years, Albania has gone through a major EU-backed judiciary reform. At this stage of the reform implementation, it is difficult to have results both in reforming the judiciary and fighting against organised crime, as one is the consequence of the other.
On the other hand, North Macedonia has succeeded in solving the long-lasting name dispute with Greece. However, French concerns involve the failure by the government to approve the law on the public prosecutor.
Overall, France's position on the re-adaptation of the negotiation framework are fair, but its radical stance against Albania and North Macedonia risks to cause more harm than good to the Union’s leverage in the region.
This article has been written as part of wider research and advocacy efforts supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of the project ‘Building knowledge about Kosovo’.
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