The Western Balkans is the only remaining dice not embedded in the mosaic of the European Union, within the borders it has long drawn. The European Union, as far back as 2003 in Thessaloniki, wanted to fill this mosaic, and so do all five countries of the Western Balkans, plus Kosovo, which are traveling at different speeds on that road. Yes, this is a fact, but also a rather worn-out mantra that has been heard in the Balkans for almost two decades, until last week’s EU summit.
Has the promised and unfulfilled opening of accession negotiations with Skopje and Tirana marked the end of a European story for the entire Balkans? Has the region been cursed by all the local Eurosceptics and their older brothers from the former empire, who are seeking their new youth and former strength in the demise of a European project?
What prevailed in the endless corridors of the Euro-bureaucracy after the French “No” for negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia was exaggerated, insincere, calculative and speculative. The tears of Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn over the fate of friends from Skopje and Tirana are as genuine as their anger towards France for dropping the ramp for Zoran Zaev and Edi Rama and their states. So, not existing.
These two top European officials in charge of EU enlargement have absolutely no interest in last week’s decision, which has (for now) quashed the hopes of the two Balkan states that they will accelerate their European path. As career bureaucrats, whose term in office has been at a “stop-time” since the end of May, and now made completely sensless, they are only interested in the transitional deadline and the new Brussels office in which they will continue their careers. Hahn hopes to remain in the European Commission, while the Italian has long dreamed of becoming the first woman secretary general of NATO, for which she will have the opportunity next year.
These two bureaucrats best characterize the state of affairs at the top of the EU, in which Northern Macedonia and Albania have had the misfortune of being on the agenda. For months, people without any legitimacy have been walking through the corridors of the European palaces in Schuman Square in Brussels, in a frantic search for new business engagement, preserving the illusion of functioning of European institutions and acting with authority over non-EU factors, such as the Western Balkans. Mogherini, Hahn, but also David McAllister, Maja Kocijančić, and many others in whom the Balkans viewed the European face in recent years are now mere depictions, without any real substance and political power.
That is why we should not take to heart these people’s statements that the EU member state’s leaders have made a “historical mistake” by delaying the start of negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia. In particular, this decision should not be projected on the remaining Balkan states. Each of them travels to the EU at their own speed, no matter how important neighborhood support or interference may sometimes be. The EU’s decision and the French veto exclusively apply to Albania and Northern Macedonia and will only have consequences for them. Without any desire to defend Macron’s veto, because it does not deserve it, it must be borne in mind that both Skopje and Tirana provided many reasons for this outcome. Northern Macedonia with its racketeering affair at the top of the public prosecutor’s office, with bizarre figures from entertainment industry involved, and Albania with a long political crisis in which Edi Rama’s government is tormented with legitimacy, to reach bottom in June as less than a quarter of voters went to the polls.
It is understood that the French president was able to look through these Balkan “mischiefs” and let the two small countries into a new round of Euro-integration. It would certainly not be the first such case of “higher interest” protection. However, Macron shows that he is not giving up his idea of transforming the Union into a community of three “zones” and, at the same time, being the leader of that new architecture. Until that happens, not only will there be no new members of the Union, but also there will not exist moving to higher levels of integration – is the main message of the French veto. The Netherlands, a champion in enlargement fatigue, easily accepted it, waiting for one of the big ones (in this case Paris, not Berlin) to oppose further enlargement and join it. Despite a decision by its parliament just a week ago that gave at least Northern Macedonia a green light, not Albania.
Germany clearly could not counter this French attitude, even though it tried, but this increasingly testifies to Angela Merkel’s tired leadership and the consequences of her exhaustion by internal political (and economic) turmoil on past leadership of the Union. If Germany was the main sponsor of the great enlargement of the Union to the east in 2004 and at that time showing its full strength, France and its leader are now seeking to take that lead and reshape the EU. The question is – at what cost?
Emmanuel Macron cannot be challenged by the intention to preserve and strengthen the EU by reforming it, but this process runs the risk of growing into its own opposite – disintegration. Less Europe and more nationality is exactly what Moscow and its anti-EU populist partners across Europe want. Macron’s blockade against Northern Macedonia and Albania is the music to the ears of Vladimir Putin, who spares no effort (and money) to convince Europeans that the Union has no future. As far as the two Balkan countries are concerned, he has achieved this goal for free.
Albania, and especially Northern Macedonia, have been betrayed by the EU because they have fulfilled (almost) everything that Brussels has asked them to do, and the prize is missing. The feeling of injustice is heavy, and the emotion-prone Balkans can easily turn it into an incurable depression. That is why the decision of the European leaders is very risky and rthere is a just warning that anti-European, nationalist policies in the Balkans are getting wings. However, it is much more certain that the malice of Balkan opponents of Europe will be short-lived, just like the enjoyment of their friends from Moscow.
It has to be borne in mind that the cases of Albania and Northern Macedonia have reached the Brussels table at the moment when there is a disturbance at the table, a Bregzite obsession, and the absence of a functioning European government that is able to tie the knot. The consolidation of European institutions by the end of the year, with the expected progress in resolving Kosovo and Metohija issues, could bring the European Union back to the Balkans in full force and, thus, stop the region’s quite realistic opening to non-European influences, primarily Russia and China.
That is why the Balkans face a risky, but not at all, hopeless period in which the real willingness of its leaders to stay on the European path, as well as European leaders to support them, will be tested. A real example in this direction was provided by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, who immediately after bad news from the EU called Zoran Zaev on the phone and encouraged him that nothing changed in NATO’s plans to receive Northern Macedonia. A very new and positive moment is the initiative of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, to move with Albania and Northern Macedonia to the formation of a “little Schengen” in the Balkans, to open borders for people and goods. These are real, strategic European moves at a time when Europe is unable to pull them off.
In the Balkans, therefore, they do not have the time or resources to wait for the EU to be reformed. That internal reform is inevitable, as its institutions have been out of function for a long time, leaving the Union without the influence and attractive strength it has successfully built for decades. Its inability to force Pristina to withdraw unprecedented fees on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is just one illustration of that dysfunction. For the Balkan countries, as well as for Albania and Northern Macedonia, which are now deeply saddened, the European Union is the only long-term and strategic option that gives them hope for economic and social prosperity. Although, after recent decisions, this may also seem like a phrase, the facts, figures, but also common sense speak solely in favor of continuing Euro-integration. No matter how unattainable or discouraging it may seem at present in Skopje and Tirana. The alternative is chaotic, though quite predictable – most Balkan states experienced only two decades ago. It is a neglected, economically isolated and security-risk space, left to the local political gods, immersed in corruption and war profits, but very willing to support one another, feeding each other xenophobia and nationalism. Current leaders in the Balkans are demonstrating that they do not want to return to such a past, but are choosing Europe, although their countries may be doing it slower and less determinedly than they should and what is expected. The question is – does Europe recognize this enough and is it determined to support them, or will it accept the risk of a new Balkan uncertainty, which without a dilemma will affect the entire European continent.