As New Europe wisely predicted in recent weeks, neither Albania nor North Macedonia received a date at the EU Summit to launch negotiations for their EU accession.

Both countries needed the date, particularly Albania as it would practically legitimise its role as one of Europe’s leading marijuana producers. North Macedonia was hoping for good news to help stabilise its government. As New Europe anticipated, however, France – which was informally backed by at least five other EU members – refused to grant a date to both countries.

That’s it…the end of the story, for the time being.

New Europe observed the interventions of EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who openly supported North Macedonia. We at New Europe presume his backing came, not because he cares about the stability of Zoran Zaev’s government, but because as an Austrian, it is his duty to protect the investments of his country in North Macedonia.

Indeed, the good Commissioner, who was obviously disappointed, told Reuters that “It’s becoming harder and harder to provide a proper explanation (for the delay). If we agreed with our partners on the steps to take, and our partners are delivering, it is then our turn to deliver.”

We were astonished reading the Op-Ed by four sitting foreign ministers from Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary which urged the bloc to grant a date to Tirana and Skopje. The four ministers were, consequently, all from former Communist Eastern Bloc nations where they mastered the art of fabricating stories and disinformation.

In the Op-Ed, the four foreign ministers made the case to Western European readers that both North Macedonia and Albania should be morally remunerated because they were bombed during the 1990s Yugoslav Wars. One minor detail, however, neither Albania nor North Macedonia was ever bombed during those bloody conflicts. Bosnia and Serbia, two countries that also should be granted EU membership, suffered heavy damage from those wars and key elements of their infrastructure were targeted and partially destroyed.

Regarding Russia’s influence in the region, Albania and Montenegro are full NATO members already and North Macedonia is set to join before the end of this year. It is stupid to think that the Russians can continue to play any role in these three countries. On the flip side of that, neither Bosnia or Serbia are in NATO and there are plenty of Russian interests in each. If the bloc truly cares about Russian infiltration into the Western Balkans, Bosnia and Serbia should begin rapid entry negotiations.

Last but not least, we want to ask the four foreign minister from Eastern Europe and ask: “What were the benefits for the EU when we let in 11 former Communist states, three of which were full republics inside the Soviet Union?”

What we got were terms that were introduced into our vocabularies – for example, the word ‘oligarch’. Did the EU-15 have an oligarch before? We familiarised ourselves with corruption, unfair justice, and authoritarian rule – all of which we see today in several of the former Eastern Bloc. In the business field, we did not open new markets, but we allowed unfair competition with the EU-15. And although all of the members should apply the same rules, the newcomers needed to enforce rules in their own way, relaxed and without many controls.

Europe must enlarge with Europeans who share the same values and culture. Indeed, how many potential candidates for EU membership meet the European moral principles that emerged from the French Revolution, Greek philosophy, and Roman law?

The rise of France

To give a date to Albania and North Macedonia about starting entry negotiations to the EU is not a big deal. Once given, negotiations to conclude the 35 chapters of the acquis, if ever concluded, could well require a decade. Therefore, for the bloc to grant a date, is irrelevant.

That the EU, the applicants claim, had promised to give a date after Skopje and Tirana carried out reforms is not a serious argument as Albania still remains a major centre for narcotics trafficking and North Macedonia continues to suffer from issues relating to the rule of law which are far below Europe’s minimum minimorum.

The question, however, is not about why they weren’t granted a date, but why the irrelevant became an issue and created divisions within the bloc. Obviously, there was a reason that unrelated to the applicants, who in this case, had their “15 minutes” of fame and that was it.

The issue now is who will fill the vacuum left by the UK after its withdrawal from the European Union at the end of this month. Brexit implies major structural changes for the remaining 27 EU members. Those new roles will require new equilibria.

Two years ago the future of the bloc was looking very German. At that time, Germany, more powerful than ever before, step by step, drove the UK out of the union and was getting ready to replace London as the leader of Europe’s foreign affairs, as well as its political and defence issues.

EU foreign policy was strictly the domain of the UK, which at the time imposed the establishment of the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign ministry, which was entrusted to Lady Ashton who filled all key sensitive positions of this new service with British diplomats. The UK also had the undisputed leading role in the Union on matters of defence.

In politics, the UK was also substantially influential and despite the fact that London never participated in the common currency, the Director of the Euro Directorate of the Commission was British.

Once Brexit became a reality, Germany appeared to be the natural successor for the British in these specific fields.

The soup, however, turned sour as traditional political parties in Germany began rapidly losing ground. Angela Merkel – who had been the political engine for Germany, and of the bloc as a whole – was marginalised and extreme elements entered German political life. This later signified the rise of the extremes all over the bloc.

Brexit is a process that cannot be reversed, and the vacuum it is leaving behind will be filled. Germany will certainly maintain the economic leadership of the bloc, but it is unlikely that it will take over leadership in foreign affairs, politics, and defence. All are political matters and after the marginalisation of Merkel, Germany is rather weak, the more so now that German linear thinking and Cartesian logic cannot meet the challenges that Europe has to confront.

This is the vacuum the United Kingdom will leave behind after leaving the EU and France is the potential candidate to fill it. Paris has a long tradition of being active in foreign affairs and France is the only Member State among the 27 which has a very serious arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Given the circumstances, France has now the opportunity to vindicate the political leadership of Europe.

To take such a positioning requires a struggle as Germany will not step back easily. To this effect, France has to confront Germany and its supporters on political grounds and it seems that it opted to confront Berlin on a rather harmless and irrelevant matter – the granting of a date to start enlargement negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania.

As a result, France first upgraded the irrelevant to important and won the first battle over a matter that has relatively little collateral damage, although we will need to monitor Tirana and Skopje next week.

It remains to be seen how President Emmanuel Macron, who has already capitalised on the matter, will continue and what will be his next steps.