The failure of EU leaders to agree on a firm date to start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia at the latest European Council meeting on October 17-18 is already having negative political repercussions within the two countries and risks a resurgence of the instability seen over the last few years.
After repeated delays in setting the date for accession talks with the two Western Balkan countries, most recently at the EU Council meeting in June, hopes — both in the two candidate countries and among European Commission officials — were high that an agreement at the October summit was more or less a formality. Skopje and Tirana had, after all, already met all the conditions set by the European Commission for the opening of talks.
But in the weeks leading up to the summit, divisions among EU members over whether to allow the two countries, especially Albania, to progress towards membership of the bloc, became apparent. While the German Bundestag backed the opening of talks ahead of the EU Council meeting, considerably fewer of its MPs voted to open talks with Albania than with North Macedonia. Dutch MPs had similar reservations; in Netherlands there are serious concerns about Albanian organised crime and calls to suspend the EU's visa free regime for Albanian citizens.
In the end, however, it was France’s President Emmanuel Macron who held out against the launch of talks with the two countries, saying there must first be internal EU reforms to the negotiation process.
“France is arguing that the EU should be reformed before more countries can be offered membership. The French government has also questioned the methodology used in evaluating the situation and has insisted that the European Commission should submit one more report on the progress of reforms in the two countries. Both of these arguments are unjustified,” wrote Marta Szpala of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in an analysis of the situation.
“Firstly, no state has a chance of joining the EU before 2027, which is enough time to reform the EU, and France is using the enlargement policy to force the other EU member states to take part in the debate on the EU’s internal reform. Secondly, the European Commission has recommended the Council of the EU to open negotiations with the two countries, and it is difficult to expect that another document prepared by the European Commission will differ significantly from the reports published in May, which served as grounds for the positive recommendation. Raising this issue should be viewed as playing for time.”
Denmark and the Netherlands also had reservations about opening accession talks, while France, Germany and Italy were against treating Albania and North Macedonia differently. They now face another months-long wait, with the EU planning to revert to the issue before the Zagreb summit in May 2020, according to the head of the European Council Donald Tusk.
The decision caused deep disappointment in both countries, which have been seeking for years to progress their bids for accession to the bloc. Politicians in both countries have made difficult, unpopular and politically costly reforms to meet the conditions set by Brussels. The country formally known as “Macedonia” changed its name to “North Macedonia” to end a decades-long dispute with neighbouring Greece that had blocked its accession to both the EU and Nato. The government in Tirana has overhauled the justice system and introduced vetting for judges, a move that faced fierce resistance from politicians that had benefitted for years from their influence over politically connected judges and prosecutors. Tirana also launched a massive operation to wipe out large-scale cannabis cultivation.
Albania has been a candidate country for just over five years, but North Macedonia has been waiting to progress its membership bid ever since gaining candidate status back in 2005. Without the taint of organised crime that has bogged down Albania’s progress, Skopje also had higher hopes of the October EU summit and the blow of yet another delay was arguably heavier.
The impact on domestic politics was immediate. Just two days after the summit ended, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced he would stand down. An interim government will take over in January to prepare for a snap general election in March. Zaev — who led efforts to strike a deal with Greece and pushed it through the parliament despite strong opposition — had already warned before the summit that he would resign if no date for talks was agreed, despite warnings that this could plunge North Macedonia back into political instability.
In a strongly worded address to citizens, Zaev talked of a "great injustice" at the summit. "The European Union did not deliver as it had promised. We did everything that was asked from us. We delivered results on reforms. We resolved disputes with neighbours. And they did not fulfil their promise and did not deliver,” he said on October 20.
“[W]e are victims of a historic mistake of the EU and this causes a great deal of bitterness among all of us. I am disappointed and mad and I know that the people feel the same. Therefore, I feel the citizens’ anger and burden as yet another scar.
“Personally, I see this failed promise as an extraordinary bad and unjust act of the Union, and at the same time, I see it as a very grave matter. That is how I interpret it.”
Saying he will seek a new mandate in the March general election, Zaev presented the choice for citizens as being between “the true road of democratic and European values” and the “dark path of isolation, nationalism, divisions and conflict”.
However, the latest poll — based on surveys immediately before the EU summit — put the conservative opposition party VMRO-DPMNE six percentage points ahead of Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), most likely setting the country up for tortuous coalition talks post-election. Last time North Macedonia held an election, VMRO-DPMNE was also ahead but failed to form a coalition, and only after six months of talks between parties did the SDSM strike a deal with the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), one of the parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority.
While welcoming Zaev’s government’s efforts to progress towards EU accession, voters appear fed up with the continuing nepotism and inefficacy in the government and state companies — the SDSM’s presidential candidate Stevo Pendarovski had a first round upset when voters took out their frustration on him, though he eventually secured victory in the second round. Zaev has since launched “Operation Broom” aimed at a clean sweep of state institutions, but it remains to be seen whether this will swing things in the polls next spring.
Meanwhile in Albania, the opposition parties — which have a deeply antagonistic relationship with Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialists — turned on the government after its failure to deliver at the summit. This gave fresh ammunition to opposition calls for Rama to resign with Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha claiming that “Europe rejected Edi Rama, not Albania”. The leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) called the decision a personal failure of the prime minister and accused him of holding the country hostage.
Last month, the opposition their ongoing protests — several of which descended into violence — saying they would hold off until after the EU’s decision. There are now fears of fresh instability and a renewed push to force Rama out following the summit.
In a comment on the situation, rating agency Standard & Poor’s warned that the EU’s failure to set a date for talks to start could weigh on reform momentum in both countries, and also raised the issue of the impact of political instability on their economies. “Accession talks typically act as a reform anchor with candidate countries implementing structural changes that could otherwise be difficult to deliver for domestic political reasons,” S&P said.
On the upcoming snap election in North Macedonia, the rating agency wrote: “We currently don't expect this development to influence short-term economic dynamics, although risks remain, as highlighted by the past effect of political uncertainty on growth following the inconclusive general election at the end of 2016.”
Unhappiness with the outcome of the EU summit wasn’t limited to domestic political actors in the two candidate countries.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Tusk stressed that an "overwhelming majority” of EU members wanted to open accession talks, and appealed to Skopje and Tirana not to give up: “You did your share and we didn’t. But I have absolutely no doubt that you will become full members of the European Union”.
“#EU leaders failed to live up to their commitment to open #accession negotiations with #NorthMacedonia and #Albania at #EUCO. This is a matter of extreme disappointment. #EU #MS now need to clarify how serious their commitment is to the #WesternBalkans’ #EU integration,” wrote EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn on Twitter.
The fear — as stressed in the European Commission’s 2018 strategy paper with which it sought to revitalise the accession process — is that discouraging messages from Brussels will remove the incentive for candidate countries from the Western Balkans to make reforms, and push them into the arms of rival powers; Russia, China and Turkey all have an interest in the region.
This was highlighted by OSW’s Szpala. “Blocking the accession talks also entails raising the question as to how the EU wants to influence neighbouring countries and encourage them to conduct reforms, if this does not off the guarantee of enhancing integration,” she wrote. “The lack of a positive decision will likely be used by such countries as Russia, China and Turkey, which have been making efforts to strengthen their position in the Balkans at the expense of the EU.”
On top of this is that whereas before progress towards accession depended on steps the candidate countries could take — even if they were politically difficult steps — Macron’s decision to hold out for internal EU reforms before further enlargement takes the decision out of the hands of the candidate countries, leaving them powerless observers of steps taken — or not taken — in Brussels.