Discussions in Luxembourg regarding EU enlargement in the Western Balkans made little headway this past week, despite the threat from North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev that he would call elections if a date to begin accession negotiations is not provided this summer.  As things now stand, the issue will be revisited in October, after a German parliamentary review.

At that time Zaev will likely face a different constellation of forces in the EU, given that Greek elections on July 7 will probably end the term of his primary Greek ally, the ebbing government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

The European Council announced on 18 June that a decision on opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia has been postponed until later this year after a meeting of European and foreign ministers in Luxembourg failed to agree on a date to open talks, which require unanimity.   When talks are eventually launched, the negotiating process will take several years, at the minimum.

EU credibility said to be at stake

The agreed conclusions from the 18 June meeting noted: “in light of the limited time available and the importance of the matter, the Council will revert to the issue with a view to reaching a clear and substantive decision as soon as possible and no later than October 2019.”

Not unexpectedly, EU officials have argued that it is important to send the right message to the Western Balkans states that have carried out reforms demanded by Brussels. They assert North Macedonia should be rewarded for settling its long-running name dispute with Greece via the June 2018 Prespes Agreement, while Albania passed judicial reforms that have been overshadowed by protests against Prime Minister Edi Rama. They also argue that further delay in opening the talks will undermine EU credibility.

Same old dispute over the speed of EU Enlargement remains

The core of the dispute over the pace of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is not new, in fact the subject was delayed by a year when first reviewed last summer immediately after Greece and the then-former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia signed the Prespes Agreement which sought to resolve the 28-year long Name Dispute between the two countries.

The EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn submitted a recommendation in May that North Macedonia and Albania should start talks as soon as possible.

Several key EU members are resisting the idea of adding new member states at the current time, chiefly France and The Netherlands. However, last week some 13 Member States, mostly from Eastern Europe but also including Italy and Austria, joined a call for the immediate opening of talks with the two Balkan countries.

Various reports indicate that a number of EU member states’ interest in another phase of enlargement has been eroded by anti-immigration sentiment among voters and by increased criticism of the bloc’s already opaque decision-making processes.   Citing lingering corruption and justice concerns in member states Romania and Bulgaria, some member states believe a slower approach, focusing on sustained reform in problematic sectors will be more prudent.

Germany is a major factor for the delay, as it first needs to get parliamentary approval and that was not possible in the time frame set by the two countries so impatient to launch accession talks this summer.  It remains unclear which direction Germany will ultimately take on this, but earlier Berlin had been an important proponent of an early launch of accession talks.  Sources in Skopje have said publicly that Zaev received a number of assurances when visiting Berlin the week before.

France, in particular, is reluctant to move forward now, believing the EU needs to resolve its own internal problems before admitting new members. French President Emmanuel Macron has been accused of holding North Macedonia hostage to his plans for reforms that deepen EU integration.

The Dutch lower house has also rejected opening negotiations with Albania, based on a perception of high levels of corruption and organised crime.

The Greek factor

A dark cloud for Skopje in particular, and possibly Tirana as well, is the July 7 parliamentary election in Greece.  According to the latest polling, Tsipras will be out of power shortly thereafter, costing North Macedonia its primary Greek ally.

In view of the heavy opposition to last June’s Prespes Agreement and the strongarm tactics that Tsipras employed to secure the deal’s ratification in January, one can expect the incoming government would immediately call a policy review on all issues flowing from the Prespes deal in order to show its resolve to shift the goalposts.  One of the first and easiest levers available to the new government would be the enlargement issue, so it is not unreasonable to expect Greece would alter current policy and turn into a proponent of a slower enlargement approach until such time as a modus vivendi can be worked out with Skopje.

While Albania does not present such a pressing problem for a new Greek government, issues surrounding the treatment of the Greek minority and border issues remain open and the opening of enlargement talks could be a casualty.