North Macedonia and Albania are inexorably tied by the delay in their long course to join Europe, yet for different reasons.

Albania has the perpetual problem of narcotics production that cannot be overcome unless Tirana provides Brussels with unquestionable proof that the city of Elbasan is no longer the Medellin of Europe. This is difficult, extremely difficult, but not impossible.  However, there should be no doubt that it will take years…many years.

North Macedonia is a different case. For almost two decades Greece vetoed the start EU accession negotiations unless the dispute over the name of the then-former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was resolved. With last year’s signing of the Prespes Agreement, which settled the Name Dispute after the two countries agreed on the name of “North Macedonia”, Athens lifted its veto on the country’s NATO membership while the agreement also required the lifting of Greece’s right to hold up Skopje’s EU association process.

Taking one issue at a time, NATO membership is beneficial only for the North Atlantic Alliance, while it bears significant costs for Skopje as the North Macedonian government will gradually have to double the size of its defence budget, but see few compensatory offset benefits.

Skopje’s inclusion into NATO successfully prevented the Russians from securing an important foothold in the Balkans. As a result, Russia’s only political presence in the region is now in Serbia, and even this doesn’t seem likely to last for much longer.

NATO membership, which still needs some time to be official, will only bring major new obligations and losses for North Macedonia. In practical terms, North Macedonia’s only hope is its accession to the European Union, but the distress felt in Skopje was at its greatest when the North Macedonian government realised that it will not get a date to start accession negotiations any time this year.

The real reason is that certain Member States – France, The Netherlands, and now, apparently, Germany, as well as others – do not have any desire to further enlarge the European Union until the impact of the Brexit anomaly is settled. This means that the EU – before considering further enlargement – must exercise some efficient damage control of the various centrifugal events that add instability to the bloc.

In addition to Brexit, the dangerous weakening of traditional mainstream political parties and immigration issues are equally serious threats to the socio-political stability of the European Union and must be addressed before thinking of any enlargement.

That the EU has prioritised the initiation of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, two countries that are institutionally weak in terms of prerequisites for EU association, implies that the bloc is not ready to enlarge. If the Union had indeed realistically wanted to grow it would have started with Serbia, a country that many see as being in even better condition to join the EU than others that are already members, including Hrvatska.

North Macedonia provided all of the excuses needed for the European bureaucrats to defer the association process. For the past two decades, Skopje has been engaged in a meaningless worldwide battle to pressure Greece into recognising it as ‘Macedonia’. At the same time, North Macedonia was doing next to nothing about the reforms that were necessary to get the country institutionally closer to the EU. In some cases, such as the rule of law, Skopje was actually moving considerably backward. When the Name Dispute was resolved last year, North Macedonia was unprepared to make the jump into the Union. Consequently, Brussels has a very good excuse not to open negotiations for the time being.

The attempted blackmail by North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who warned Brussels that if his country was not immediately going to get a date to open EU accession negotiations he would call early elections and the anti-EU opposition might win, according to one of them who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Berlaymont gurus took it as a “grotesque joke”.

Negotiating with the most sophisticated administrative machine in the world takes much more than empty threats by an applicant partner with little actual leverage.

Brussels already got what it wanted from North Macedonia – a new NATO member to block Russia’s mischief in the region at zero cost. As to whether the Zaev government will stay in power or not, the European Commission could care less and the European administration will have additional arguments to delay the opening of enlargement negotiations if a new Eurosceptic government comes to power in Skopje.