Macron talks about wanting to offer countries more incentives along the way and about wanting to make sure they are committed to the rule of law — with no backsliding.
That commitment has been shown to be weak in some of the Central European countries admitted in 2004 and 2007, who have since subverted independent democratic institutions to consolidate power, thus challenging fundamentals of the European project.
But some analysts say Macron is thinking more about French domestic politics — that he wants to appease anxious voters and a formidable far right, both of which fear what an expanded E.U. might mean for increased immigration.
Meanwhile, his critics say that by trying to change the rules, the French president is undermining the E.U.’s credibility and encouraging instability in the Balkans.
Although Macron was not alone in blocking Albania at a mid-October E.U. summit — he was joined by the Netherlands and Denmark — he was isolated in blocking the start of accession talks with North Macedonia.
The small Balkan nation of roughly 2 million has been a candidate for E.U. membership since 2005 and even changed its name as part of its effort to join the trade bloc.
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia 28 years ago, Greece had objected to its northern neighbor calling itself Macedonia. Athens accused Skopje of wanting to control its northern territory, which is also called Macedonia. But after Macedonia agreed to formally change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece agreed to drop its opposition to its neighbor joining the E.U. and NATO.
Greece’s then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their successful collaboration.
Macron said no anyway, citing concerns about the E.U.’s enlargement process in general.
“This is a dispute about vision,” he said at a news conference after the E.U. summit. “The enlargement rules need reform.”
He added: “We should do more to help those countries develop, not just make pledges.”
Macron’s veto took his European counterparts by surprise and triggered the resignation of North Macedonia’s Zaev, who has called for snap elections.
“I am frustrated and angry, and I know that all people feel the same way,” Zaev said in a televised broadcast.
“A great injustice was inflicted on us. The E.U. did not deliver on its promise,” he said. “We discharged all our obligations, we delivered results in our reforms, we solved the issues with our neighbors.”
Donald Tusk, outgoing head of the European Council, addressed “our Macedonian and Albanian friends” on Twitter, assuring them, “You did your share and we didn’t.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also sought to deliver assurances during a visit to Croatia on Wednesday.
“I want to tell the states of the Western Balkans that they, too, have a prospect for membership in the European Union,” she said in the Croatian capital. “We will live up to that, we will make that happen.”
The E.U. may revisit the Western Balkans accession question at a Zagreb summit in May. But Macron wants changes before he’ll shift his position.
The French memo shared with E.U. diplomats this past week spells out in slightly more detail his vision for what joining the bloc should involve.
The memo begins by asserting that France sees the Western Balkans — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — as part of Europe culturally and historically and would ultimately like to see them join the union.
Macron then proposes seven stages on the progression toward membership. He would also like the E.U. to reverse or suspend the process “if the European Union’s fundamental values were challenged.”
Albert Musliu, head of the Association for Democratic Initiatives, a North Macedonia-based think tank, said it’s hard to see how opening accession talks with his country could threaten the E.U.
“For the last 20 years, our political discourse was developed toward joining E.U.,” he said. “We went through a lot of reforms in our internal legal system in order to adjust ourselves to the standards of the E.U.”
He added: “No one can persuade the citizens of Macedonia and Albania that our starting negotiations would represent a danger for the internal procedures of the E.U. We represent not even half of Paris together.”
Serbian political scientist Ivan Vejvoda, a fellow at Vienna’s Institute for Human Sciences, said “rethinking and improving” how members join is not in itself controversial. New members have always had to meet certain democratic requirements, and how they prove themselves has changed over time.
But the French block, Vejvoda said, “has tainted the credibility of the European Union.”
“Given that Northern Macedonia and Greece reached a truly historic decision, a very difficult one, and then to have a ‘no’ slammed in their face after having postponed a decision last May is truly something that everyone — the vast majority of members states and the whole region of the Balkans — reacted negatively to,” Vejvoda said. “It was a miscalculation.”
Political analysts say the impasse has undermined the E.U.’s appeal in a region where other operators — Russia, most importantly, but also China and certain Middle Eastern states — are vying for a foothold.
There’s also concern that the Balkans could go the way of Turkey, which has largely given up on democracy since it saw its E.U. accession hopes repeatedly frustrated.
And there’s worry about the potential for renewed conflict in a region that went to war with itself in the early 1990s.
French political analyst Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, said France is not wrong to point out the issue of democratic backsliding in E.U. candidate countries such as Serbia but needs to be clearer about its alternative proposals for the region.
“How do we step up our support at a time when Russia and China are stepping in?” he said. If enlargement shouldn’t be the E.U.’s goal, he said, “then I want to ask them: What is the foreign policy?”