The french opposition to Western Balkan’s EU accession

On October 17-18, the European Council was called to deliberate on the start of negotiations for the accession of North Macedonia and Albania to the European Union. This event should have marked the end of a long period of reforms adopted by Skopje and Tirana in order to join the European Union, which began respectively in 2004 and 2009 with the request of membership. Despite a general recognition of the efforts made by the two candidates, the European Council failed to reach the necessary unanimity needed to allow the beginning of the final accession phase. In fact, the French Republic, supported by Denmark and Netherlands choose to veto in order to prevent the adhesion of North Macedonia and Albania, while also proposing to reform the legal process and the necessary conditions to join the European Union.

In the press conference held after the European Council meeting, President Emmanuel Macron stated that the European Union is still experiencing a moment of institutional and economic crisis from which it has not yet come out. For these reasons, President Macron’s conviction is that before proceeding with a further expansion of the European Union it is necessary to first reach a strong internal stabilisation and continue on a path of integration and reforms.

In addition, the French President further justified the veto asserting that North Macedonia and Albania needed to keep carrying out reforms and adopt severe initiatives against corruption and organised crime as well as in the field of the rule of law and economic regulation. Moreover, President Macron expressed his concerns about the actual capacity of the two Balkan states to adequately manage immigration. The territories of these two nations are an integral part of the Balkan Route, one of the main migratory paths to access Europe. As a result, considerable amounts of immigrants cross the territory of the two Balkan countries.

The French President’s statements have raised high amount of criticism and sparked speculation that the veto was used for merely internal political purposes. The real aim of France’s objections would be to stem the internal right opposition parties that have always harshly opposed to the expansion of the European Union towards East, claiming that enlargement of the Community would result in a sharp increase of immigrants in France.

This matter is also strongly linked to the terrorism issue, since Paris major issue is the return of former foreign fighters from the Middle East to Europe. A few weeks ago, in a well-known interview released to The Economist, Emmanuel Macron referred to Bosnia-Herzegovina as a ticking time-bomb because of the many foreign fighters that left the country in 2014-2016 to reach Syria and Iraq and are now coming back, according to recent intelligence reports. These declarations have sparked controversy and caused a diplomatic feud between Paris and Sarajevo, which is currently a candidate to join the European Union and is negotiating the accession treaty with the EU member states. It is likely to assume, Bosnia-Herzegovina will therefore face complications for its entrance in the EU.

Macron has of course denied the allegations on the reasons behind the veto and has continued sustain that a proposal to reform the EU enlargement legal process is required. In recent days, a French draft proposal on this matter was informally circulated among the media.

The French proposal does not touch the substantial conditions needed to be fulfilled in order to join the Union. These conditions are the Copenhagen Criteria, which establish three prerequisites: the respect of the human rights and the democratic values (political condition); the existence of market economy (economic condition) and the implementation of the Acquis Communautaire (legal condition).

Instead, the alleged amendment concerns the procedure to join the EU. This is referenced by Art. 49 of TUE. Presently, the procedure to be followed to become a member of the Union requires a country to discuss the accession treaty with every EU state. This phase is possible once the European Council has approved the start of the negotiations (on proposal of the EU Commission). These negotiations are focused on the EU Acquis, which is currently divided into 35 chapters that a candidate country shall absorb in its legal system. Once the negotiations are over and the Commission assess whether the EU legislation is effectively implemented the negotiations are completed. It also possible that the member states grant special arrangements and exemptions to the candidate on some specific parts of the Acquis. This process can take many years, as the legal system of a candidate state can be very different from those of the EU member states. The accession treaty marks the end of the process. The agreement is signed by every member state and the candidate state, and is then approved by the European Parliament.

The French proposal would eradicate the negotiation based on the 35 chapters of the Acquis, replacing it with a more concise accession process divided into seven stages. Each stage corresponds to a set of legislation issues that the candidate state has to implement without the possibility to obtain any kind of exemption and under the supervision of the EU institutions in order to check for effective progress. The conditions established in these stages would be more stringent, especially in relation to economic governance and the rule of law.

As far as every stage is completed and the relative legislation is implemented by the candidate country, the European Union grants it economic benefits and the possibility to participate in the EU programmes. Moreover, the Paris proposal includes the possibility to reverse the process and sanction the candidate if it no longer meets the requirements or become unable to implement the European Union Law. The French proposition, therefore, would certainly be more stringent than the current process, in order to assure greater accountability and consistency with the EU project by the candidate state.

Since the French Republic has not officially presented the abovementioned reform, it has not caused any kind of reaction. However, the predicament caused by the veto has clearly triggered several reactions from other member states and the EU representatives, such as the President of European Council Donald Tusk and the new President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen who criticised the French decision.

It cannot go unmentioned that behind this criticism against the French decision there are some major geopolitical concerns. The Council’s difficulty in reaching an agreement on the admission of North Macedonia and Albania virtually leaves these two countries open to the influence of the Russian Federation and China. It is undeniable that Moscow and Beijing represent the two main competitors to the European Union in the Balkan Peninsula. In the last years, these two nations have carried out a considerable amount of investments in the region, increasing their grip on the economy of the area and their power over local governments.

The concerns on a rapprochement between Russians, Chinese and the West Balkan Countries must not be underestimated. A few week ago, Serbia, which is another candidate to EU membership, declared to have signed a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, a regional organisation led by Russia that is bringing together some ex-Soviet states. Although the Belgrade’s representative was quick to assure that the Agreement would be annulled with the accession to the EU, it is clear that the EU member states along with the EU high officers have not appreciated the Serbian move.

It seems improbable that the French veto could ever come out a reform of the legal procedure to join the European Union. For now, the Paris objections have provoked a stalemate that has already undermined the new von der Leyen’s ambition for a stronger geopolitical Union. The risk Europe losing importance in the region is seen as more urgent than a reform of the accession process and that is why it is probable that there will be further debates over this topic. It will be interesting to see how the situation evolves and if it will be possible to reach a compromise, breaking through the French resistance. For now, it is just possible to observe that the EU objective of completing the integration of the West Balkan Countries will certainly not be achieved by 2030 as was previously estimated by the Commission. In addition, since Turkey, which is the other potential major candidate for membership, is far away from a possible admission, it is likely that the EU expansion will be frozen for a long period.