Since the end of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, an E.U. priority has been to bring long-term stability to this troubled part of the continent. To end wars is one thing, but to build genuine peace requires long-term effort, particularly around peaceful integration.
In 2003, as part of the Thessaloniki summit, E.U. leaders formally committed their countries to opening the E.U. for membership to all the countries in the Western Balkans. Ever since, this has been the lighthouse that has inspired and guided the policies pursued in the region seeking to reform economies and societies, overcome the divisions of the past and prepare for the European future of tomorrow.
It certainly hasn’t been easy, and progress has been slow in a number of areas. But in a region always torn between the forces of disintegration and integration, the balance has clearly shifted from the former to the latter, largely thanks to the European perspective.
That project has been put in jeopardy by France’s decision on North Macedonia. No one was under the impression that membership in the E.U. for North Macedonia was in any way imminent. It was a question of starting a decade-long process of negotiations and reforms inspired by that prospect.
In fact, the 2018 Prespa Agreement between North Macedonia and Greece that solved the countries’ long-standing name dispute was supposed to be a de facto precondition for starting on the E.U. path. Now the word from Paris is that this will have to wait until there are some unspecified reforms to the E.U. in the years and perhaps decades ahead.
That’s bad in itself, but the implications of the decision go much further. The French veto was not just a veto against North Macedonia and Albania, but also against the entire enlargement process in the Western Balkans, effectively sinking the entire policy. This might not have been spelled out explicitly but, implicitly, it was also a veto against Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
This will inevitably have implications for other outstanding issues in the region. With the opportunity to integrate, Serbia was supposed to choose between its future with Europe and its past with Kosovo, thereby normalizing relations between the two. If Europe closes the door, this becomes immeasurably more difficult. And with all of its tensions, the future of Bosnia would of course be much more stable if the country was embedded in the structures of Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks in eloquent terms about the responsibilities of Europe and wants to position himself as the figure launching the E.U. on a new trajectory of global relevance. That is all fine and good — and urgently needed — but hardly compatible with shooting down the credibility of the E.U. in Europe itself.
It should be remembered that the last time a more substantial overhaul of the E.U. was attempted, with the so-called Constitutional Treaty, it was brought down by a referendum in France in 2005. No one has since dared to revive those efforts. And whether Paris is sincere about its willingness to open up to new members in the future is open to doubt. Few, I fear, will be ready to count on it.
France may never have been an enthusiastic supporter of the enlargement of the E.U., but it has generally accepted the process and lived happily with the result. Yet France did what it could to block the prospects of Turkey acceding during its years of promising democratic reforms and European aspirations. Although other factors were certainly at work, this played a role in propelling Turkey in a distinctly different direction. While Turkey in the past was a strategic opportunity for Europe, it has now turned into a strategic danger for the West.
Looking ahead, the risk is that the same might happen in the Balkans. And while its countries will remain economically dependent on the E.U., the inevitable slowing of needed reforms and integration will likely force even more young people from the Balkans to seek their future in the E.U. Those that remain might well be more allured by the dangerous policies of nationalism and nostalgia. Deprived of a future, they might seek a return to the past.
After all, it’s the Balkans. We have seen this happen before.