Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
 

After Macron victory, Enlargement diplomacy back on the radar

Progress for the Western Balkans at June EU Council?
EC - Audiovisual Service
Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, addressing the European Parliament

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With the war in Ukraine and the noise surrounding the French presidential elections, the subject of EU Enlargement into the Western Balkans had almost completely faded from public consciousness. Indeed, with the torrent of Ukrainian refugees already straining the resources of many member states, the last thing most EU citizens were interested in was opening a new pathway for free movement into the EU from impoverished EU candidate countries Albania and North Macedonia. Everybody except the European Commission’s Enlargement bureaucracy, various pro-Enlargement NGOs, and the aspirant countries themselves, of course.

Almost immediately after Macron’s April 24 election victory in France, things began to change, however. Despite polling results which show that strong anti-immigrant resentment boosted extremist parties substantially in the presidential election and could still play a role in France’s June parliamentary elections, EU Enlargement proponents opted to make another push to initiate the EU accession process for Albania and North Macedonia before the rapidly approaching end of the French EU Presidency. Washington also decided to continue its moral support for Enlargement by sending a high-level envoy to the region as well, although most observers understand Washington has no vote in Brussels on this matter and is little more than an uninvited cheerleader.

Ukraine War impact

The key question at the present time is what impact the Ukraine war will have on the overall EU Enlargement strategy, and whether Albania and North Macedonia will receive a political boost if and when the EU decides to grant so-called candidate status to Ukraine, as well as possibly to Moldova and Georgia.

The only thing that most observers agree on is that some kind of encouragement is absolutely essential for the Western Balkan candidate countries even if formal accession negotiations are not launched immediately. And with Bulgaria’s continued veto on the start of North Macedonia’s accession process, something tangible to fill the gap is needed while both countries try to negotiate a meaningful compromise.

Enlargement fatigue remains a problem across the EU, but in the case of the Western Balkans this is primarily because Albania and North Macedonia offer the EU so little as new members, and because Enlargement is primarily seen as a geopolitical stabilization exercise, which makes it unattractive to almost everyone except national leaders who are almost certainly tired of repeating the Enlargement mantra without taking concrete steps.

Looming June EU Council – what to expect?

With French parliamentary elections set for June, it remains anyone’s guess as to how ambitious the June EU Council’s objectives will be concerning Enlargement. Of course, Enlargement supporters will argue to the minute the final Summit declaration is closed that the EU is in a “now or never” situation thanks to the Ukraine war. Barring a rapid agreement between Sofia and Skopje however, there is little reason to expect the EU will deliver a miracle, considering the considerable number of other controversial issues in need of immediate resolution.

Várhelyi and Donfried visit Western Balkans

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi visited Sofia, Skopje, and Tirana April 26-28 to demonstrate the Commission’s interest in reviving the Enlargement process. As expected, the most “pressure” was applied to Kiril Petkov’s government in Sofia, with the objective of lifting Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession by the June EU Summit. While bilateral talks launched in January this year are reportedly making progress, at least one nationalist party which is essential to Petkov’s coalition is demanding that potential changes to the North Macedonian constitution be finalized before the veto is lifted, increasing the potential for continuing delays.

Albania’s Prime Minister indicated the country is losing patience with the Bulgaria-North Macedonia dispute which is delaying the start of his country’s EU accession negotiations. Rama said April 28 he would decide in June whether to “de-link” his country from North Macedonia and move ahead with the EU separately, after losing more than a year to the dispute which does not concern his country. Although not an approach supported by all EU member states, this step would preserve some of the fading Enlargement momentum.

US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried began her first tour through the Western Balkans last week by visiting Pristina April 25 and Belgrade the next day. Support for EU Enlargement was a major objective of this visit, but not the only one as Donfried also pressed for more progress on the EU-sponsored Kosovo-Serbia dialogue as a measure that would help to limit Russian influence in the Western Balkans. Donfried also visited Montenegro and Bosnia during her April 25-29 regional tour.

In Skopje and Tirana, Donfried also emphasized the importance of EU Enlargement which the US has no formal influence over. While in Tirana, Donfried was able to meet with Enlargement Commissioner Várhelyi to further emphasize the “shared priority” the EU and US place on Enlargement even though Washington can do little more than issue supportive statements on the issue.

Donfried was also drawn into the controversy over judicial reform in Albania, an issue critical to Albania’s eventual EU accession, when she was asked to defend the interventionist polices of the resident US Ambassador, Yuri Kim, who has been working with an unpopular faction of the opposition Democratic Party which accepts the current socialist government’s judicial reforms as transparent and sufficient to meet EU requirements.

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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