There is an old French proverb: “Silence is a wise friend who will never let you down”. Perhaps it is precisely in this cynical philosophy that the rounded and reserved positions of French diplomacy towards the process of EU enlargement to the countries of the Western Balkans can be found. In this timetable, the process of starting negotiations with our country and the EU can also be found. Is it Emmanuel Macron’s God caprice toward the Balkans, or is it because of the different tastes of the rich French menu where one can find the famous goat cheese carrying the same name – caprice dec dieux?
Figuratively speaking, Macron’s diplomatic sinusoid has been experiencing a quiet and soft turn to this issue over the past three years, with unpredictable consequences for the Balkans. During a speech to students and professors of the Sorbonne in the autumn of 2017, Macron pledged for a united Europe, which would not retreat before the pressure of European populists and anti-European forces. A year later, at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia in May 2018, Macron brought out the French pessimistic vision of the Union’s enlargement.Macron said he “will only support an enlargement when there is first a deepening and a reform of our Europe.” In July 2018, despite the reserves of France and the Netherlands, the Council of the European Union, with the support of Greece, reached a consensus and pledged to start accession negotiations with Skopje and Tirana. On the same lines was the opinion of the meek President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who repeatedly repeated that “the countries of the Western Balkans should have a clear European perspective”. However, one should bear in mind that the European Commission does not decide on the admission of new members to the EU, but can only determine whether a country meets the accession requirements. The decision on enlargement is made by the member states themselves.
Just when the Balkan leaders began to calculate with their pro-European emotional outbursts, the image of the European Balkan ballad turned blurry. The new blurring of Balkan European visions took place a month ago when French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau visited Belgrade. She said that “the current situation in the EU does not allow enlargement to the countries of the Western Balkans”. She added that the countries of the Western Balkans do have a European perspective, but it is necessary to reform the European Union first and to review its functioning.
At the time of Brexit, mass migrations and “yellow vests” among the French political elite increased European skepticism over EU enlargement. And it’s understandable, in a crisis, all political subjects are facing their own problems. In this anti-European rhetoric, the French opposition is leading. In 2017, after the European speech of Macron, Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of the right-wing Republicans, with a dose of strong sarcasm, attacked the French president: “Macron will bring the Balkans into the EU, can you imagine. EU enlargement to the Western Balkans will only bring damage and headaches to both France and the whole of Europe.” Even more blasphemous is the position of the most powerful extremist party in France headed by Marine Le Pen. Guided by the atavism of her father, who denied the Holocaust, brutally rejects the membership of the Balkan countries in the EU. In her Euro-skeptical works, she said that “the EU is defined more by values than by geographical boundaries”. Further enlargement would be repeated massive influx of labor, creation of new channels for migration, organized crime and corruption, and incitement to the dissatisfaction of European peoples. In the end Marine Le Pen ironically asks: is there anything that can keep the federalists of the European Commission from irresponsibly designing the borders of Europe as farther as possible.
Where is North Macedonia in all this nonsense?
One should not forget that President Emmanuel Macron is a self-declared Europhile. The European Union is very high in his political agenda. This is also a significant trump card for Zaev’s government. The second favorable element, which is the most significant one, is the Prespa Agreement which represents the most serious step towards the European perspectives of the state and this trump cannot be overlooked. In the talks with the French lawmakers who attended last week in Skopje, the views expressed that the countries of the Western Balkans must not repeat the “Turkish syndrome”, that is, to open the negotiations, and then wait for decades without any progress. At the same time, the bad experiences with Romania and Bulgaria, which went insufficiently prepared in the EU, serve as lessons learned for future enlargements. Regardless of these silent warnings, the impression is that our aspirations to start negotiations are more realistic than those of Albania. Tirana and Belgrade are in big political problems and this will probably slow down their ambitions. How do you explain this Franco-skepticism towards the enlargement of the EU?
There is no doubt that the strategic positions of the political parties in France are marked by the campaign for the European elections in May. Macron received a double contradictory Promethean task. On the one hand, for him to remain a European insisting on EU reforms, and, on the other hand, to satisfy French public opinion and voters. The lucky circumstance is that populism and the revolt of the “yellow vests” is in decline, and that Macron’s popularity is on the rise, and that could reduce the skepticism of the French president? Macron in his Sorbonne speech 2017 puts the rule of law and democratic values first in the new European project. Regarding the Balkans, he noted that the only means to overcome populism is respect for European acquis and democratic reforms. Later on, in Sofia 2018, Macron made a surprising distinction between a sovereign Europe and a united Europe. Sovereignty means that the Balkans would have to be tied to the EU due to historical and geopolitical reasons. United Europe means that it is not possible to expand before reforming Europe.
This argument is questionable, considering that this process has been going on for ten years now. It is evident that there is no excuse to block the opening of negotiations, which is a long and painstaking process. Montenegro and Macedonia do not have three million citizens combined and cannot be compared with the size of Turkey or Romania. Macron added that it would not be serious to open up the negotiation processes without any conditions. This attitude is questionable as well, since no enlargement process has been open without any kind of previously imposed conditions. Macron has repeatedly stressed that corruption and migration are cancerous to the Balkan countries, and reforms are not happening fast enough. Regardless of the fact that the issue of enlargement has never found its place in Macron’s concept of a Democratic Europe, he nevertheless emphasized the special significance of Macedonia and the agreements reached with Bulgaria and Greece. I do not believe that in the messages Macron to Zaev there is a dose of euphemism when the French president advocates that “the states that make such efforts as North Macedonia must be rewarded.” This statement is a significant trump card for our European dreams, as well as a road-map for other Balkan aspirants.
What can be expected? The Balkan region is the only region where the EU can conceive a new reality, but at the same time it is the region in which Europe missed the most. If the European Union has ambitions to play the role of a serious, strong and autonomous actor on a political and military plan, then this chance begins in the Balkans.
Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik