In October, French President Emmanuel Macron effectively blocked formal E.U. membership talks for North Macedonia. The accession setback for the tiny country with a little more than 2 million people suggests much bigger issues within the European Union. As my doctoral research explains, this may be a missed opportunity for the E.U. to effect change in a country eager to join.

Despite its problems and challenges, the E.U. is still the club to join for many of Europe’s eastern neighbors — E.U. members must unanimously agree to open negotiations for any applicant country to gain full membership. The E.U. currently lists five “candidate countries”: North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.

For some analysts, the message last month, for Albania and North Macedonia, suggests welcoming new members is not an E.U. priority. Nonetheless, the E.U. expects candidates to continue enlargement reforms in the hope that France will change its mind.

What just happened — and what does it mean for Europe?

Why did the E.U. turn its back?

The Republic of Macedonia became a candidate for E.U. membership in 2005. In 2009, the European Commission gave the green light to open formal negotiations to join the E.U. — but a dispute with Greece over the country’s official name delayed negotiations for almost a decade. Another stumbling block was Bulgaria’s 2012 veto over the two countries’ shared history.

In recent months, the newly renamed North Macedonia expected that resolving the dispute would prompt the E.U. to open its doors. E.U. leaders also stated that progress on these specific problems would allow the accession process to continue. Indeed, in May, the European Commission once again recommended the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia.

Macron said ‘Non’

In June, the E.U. decided to postpone the final decision until October. On Oct. 18, France formally vetoed opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. According to Macron, the E.U. enlargement process needs substantial restructuring before negotiations can be opened. European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticized the French move — Juncker even called the French veto “a historic mistake.”

North Macedonia’s government wasn’t pleased. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev admitted considering resignation after the disappointing outcome of the E.U. summit. However, he called for a snap election in April 2020 instead, saying this will give the mandate to the people to decide about the future of the country.

Will the E.U. decision prompt moves in North Macedonia to create clear distance between the unhappy parties? That’s a concern some analysts have voiced. The E.U. commissioner for enlargement also seems concerned. In particular, disappointment with the E.U. could help push countries like North Macedonia away from the E.U. and into Russia’s orbit — or even China’s. As E.U. Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn points out, the E.U. could well be helping sow the seeds of instability in its own backyard.

Is this a missed opportunity?

As my research illustrates, an applicant such as North Macedonia is more likely to listen to E.U. demands when it is still further from actually becoming a member. As membership becomes more likely, the reforms that governments undertake become more mechanistic and limited in scope — and the E.U. has weaker leverage.

By the time a country gains E.U. membership, the E.U. effectively loses all sway. For example, the E.U. found it difficult to gain a consensus to censure Hungary or Poland, two member countries that have reversed reforms.

The E.U.’s leverage is at its peak around the opening of formal negotiations — the step North Macedonia hoped to achieve in October. The E.U. would have put issues with the rule of law and corruption at the forefront of the talks. Without progress in these areas the accession process is unlikely to continue. The E.U. could have imposed conditions on North Macedonia to resolve its numerous corruption scandals, including an ongoing misuse of power case involving the former special prosecutor.

As the E.U.’s influence is strongest at the start of the negotiations process, bringing corrupt officials to justice would be a membership condition that North Macedonia would not be able to ignore. However, by turning North Macedonia away, the E.U. appears to be giving up the opportunity to effect change — and seems to be hard-wiring in greater problems in the years to come.

If the E.U. does not hold North Macedonia accountable to make changes, it is unlikely other international actors will do so. This is because the E.U. has the most powerful mechanism for effectuating change — the prospect of European Union membership.

Stability in the Western Balkans could be at risk

Moreover, the decision to postpone negotiations has ramifications for overall accession of countries in the region. Stability across the Western Balkans is a core priority for the E.U. But postponing accession for North Macedonia (and Albania) signals that the E.U. puts Western Balkan enlargement at the bottom of its agenda priorities. This poses risks to the stability of the region, previously maintained by the promise of a European perspective. If the E.U. does not actually hold up its end of the bargain to allow candidates to progress in the accession process when progress is due, reforms in the Western Balkans are likely to stall.

The Western Balkan countries continue to face various bilateral disputes. The prospects of joining the E.U. — access to E.U. funds, and freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services — has been keeping the fragile stability of the region in place.

By delaying the Western Balkan enlargement, the E.U. undermines its own enlargement conditionality — the leverage it has to insist on reforms. An added concern, perhaps, is that the return or strengthening the power of semi-authoritarian leaders in the region may take these countries further away from the European Union — something that does not seem in the best interests of the E.U. or North Macedonia.

Liljana Cvetanoska is a lecturer in corruption, law and governance at the University of Sussex in the U.K.