The scenario that emerged late last week with multiple reports that France would oppose immediate decisions on EU Enlargement has come to pass.
EU European Affairs ministers (General Affairs Council) discussed the Enlargement matter again in Luxembourg on 15 October before taking the deadlock to national leaders at the Brussels summit on 17-18 October. No decision was reached, despite the meeting stretching on past midnight on 17 October in order to find a compromise on a statement.
Attempts were apparently made to decouple Albania from North Macedonia in order to reach a compromise, a formula that had also failed in Luxembourg days earlier.
Under President Emmanuel Macron, France has made two different lines of objection to immediate enlargement clear. The first is procedural, where Macron argues the entire mechanism and process for enlargement must be redesigned to remove what he called the “soap opera” elements of the procedure. It is unclear how long this will take but Macron’s insistence won the day as EU member state unanimity is required for decisions of this nature.
The second objection is factual, as Paris does not see Tirana or Skopje as currently ready to begin accession negotiations, expecting significant additional progress. Rule of law is seen as the major weak spot in both countries.
Whenever talks are eventually launched, the existing negotiating process would have taken several years, at a minimum. With the process modified as per France’s request, things could take even longer.
Twice delayed, for now
As a decision on issuing a date to begin enlargement talks has already been delayed on two previous occasions, a major push was made in advance of this week’s summit by the Visegrad Four’s foreign ministers who sent a hard-hitting letter supporting both candidate countries, as well as Op-Eds by practically every NGO working in the Western Balkans.
Throughout this period, European Commission officials have argued that it is important to send the right message to the nations of the Western Balkans that have carried out reforms demanded by Brussels. They also assert North Macedonia should be rewarded for settling its long-running name dispute with Greece via the June 2018 Prespes Agreement.
What remains now is to monitor the political reaction in both would-be candidate countries. The threat from North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to call elections if a date to begin accession negotiations was not provided from Brussels should not be forgotten, and media reports from Skopje October 19 indicate he is moving ahead immediately with snap elections, pending parliamentary approval.