Stalled EU Accession Threatens Future Prosperity in Balkans

Written by: Peter LaBelle

For the Republic of North Macedonia, there must currently be a strong feeling of déjà vu. Almost three years ago, the Prespa Agreement ended the country’s long-running dispute with Greece over its name. This deal saw Macedonia change its name to North Macedonia, a change demanded by Greece on the grounds that “Macedonia” implied a territorial claim over the Greek administrative region of the same name. The agreement, ratified by both countries in 2018 and early 2019, opened the doors to North Macedonian accession into NATO and the European Union (EU).

Yet today, North Macedonia finds its progress once again stymied by a petty nationalist squabble, this time with its eastern neighbor, Bulgaria, who insist that North Macedonia acknowledge that the Macedonian language has “Bulgarian roots,” and further allege that North Macedonia suppresses the rights of Bulgarians within its borders. Worse yet, the Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia’s accession process has hit Albania as well, whose bid for EU membership was being considered in tandem with North Macedonia’s. The setbacks which North Macedonia, Albania, and other states of the Eastern Balkans have faced in seeking EU membership demonstrate not only the continuing power of nationalist passion but also a regrettable lack of interest on the part of the Union’s traditional leaders. Failure to expand in the Balkans has potential geopolitical consequences, but also a human cost in terms of lost opportunities for development.

Accession to the EU is a long and complicated process, requiring not only the unanimous approval of all current member states, but also a review of the applicant nation’s political, legal, and monetary systems, all of which must be integrated with their EU counterparts to a greater or lesser degree. There have long been legitimate concerns about the readiness of West Balkan states to join the EU, owing to their high levels of corruption, potentially weak democracies, and strong organized crime syndicates. In summer 2021, however, the European Commission acknowledged the progress made by North Macedonia and Albania on these issues and confirmed that both countries qualify for EU accession.

Given this recognition, Balkan states might have been surprised when, at a summit meeting with Balkan countries on October 6, the EU backed away from earlier promises of membership. Though EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said that “The Western Balkans are part of the same Europe as the European Union [and] the EU is not complete without them,” the EU will no longer guarantee future membership to the West Balkan states. A long-standing promise of “unequivocal support” for future West Balkan accession has been dropped. This time, the vetoes do not only come from Bulgaria. Northern European countries object as well, presumably because of fiscal concerns. These may be exacerbated by the recent creation of the EU recovery fund, an €800-billion debt issuance to finance pandemic recovery, which was agreed to reluctantly by some of the wealthier EU members.

Fiscal reasoning may also disguise other political concerns. France has been resistant to EU expansion, arguing that the club is already too big and that decision-making is hard enough as it is. Problems with democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary have no doubt also shaken confidence in the West Balkans and have led the French to prefer ”deepening” (greater integration of EU economies and political systems) to “widening” (expanding membership) the EU. Furthermore, an increase in right-wing populism, together with xenophobic sentiment toward Albanian immigrants in France, may make French President Emmanuel Macron nervous about approving new EU members ahead of a re-election campaign next year. A majority of French people surveyed say they disapprove of EU expansion. And the United Kingdom, long a supporter of EU expansion, is no longer even a member. All this explains, then, why Slovenia stood alone in calling for West Balkan accession by 2030, a proposition widely considered laughably unrealistic.The EU’s failure to expand in the Balkans may have geopolitical consequences. For example, Chinese investment in the region has picked up in recent years as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The pandemic has not stopped this process: in September, construction began on a factory in Serbia that will produce China’s Sinopharm COVID vaccine. The EU’s reluctance to move into the Balkans allows China’s hold in the region to grow. More importantly, however, the failure of the EU to live up to its promises results in missed opportunities for millions of European citizens. For those countries which have been able to enter the EU, accession to the club resulted in a significant improvement in economic performance, together with enhanced personal freedoms such as travel across the continent. It will be a great shame if the opportunities granted to the Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, and others since the beginning of the century are denied to their West Balkan neighbors. Both the Balkans and Europe as a whole will be poorer for it.