Can Europe Make It?

The EU can strengthen Balkan reformers just by keeping its word

It is in the interest of the EU that North Macedonia starts accession negotiations now. Deutsch

Kristof Bender
15 June 2019
Zoran Zaev greeted with military honours by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, February 2018.
Zoran Zaev greeted with military honours by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, February 2018.
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Ralf Hirschberger/PA. All rights reserved.

On 10 May 2019 Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic claimed that none of the “beautiful dreams” that the EU holds out to the Western Balkans will come true. He predicted that the EU will not open any new negotiation chapters with Serbia and Montenegro, that the EU would not start negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, that the EU would not grant visa liberalisation to Kosovo and that nothing positive would happen for Bosnia either. He added: “OK, we are stupid, but not that stupid, and everyone knows that I am right and that nothing will happen in June and in July”.

Vucic’s message is that the EU will not fulfil its promises and that instead each nation needs to fend for itself. In November last year Vucic announced that “we will continue to strengthen our military dramatically”.

When we will look back after the upcoming Council and European Council meetings, we might have to conclude that president Vucic was right and that North Macedonia’s prime minister Zoran Zaev, who invested all his political capital in the European future of his country, was wrong to do so. If North Macedonia will be denied the start of accession negotiations, Vucic will look realistic and strong. Zaev will look naïve and weak.

This cannot be in the interest of the EU. No doubt, many of the concerns of President Emmanuel Macron, German parliamentarians and others in the EU who do not want to take in unprepared new members, are warranted. None of the West Balkan countries currently meets the criteria for accession. None of them will join the EU without huge efforts to strengthen their democratic and judicial institutions. None of them will be prepared to join any time soon.

Few European leaders disagree with this assessment. But nearly all of them support the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia. They have three strong arguments on their side.

First, the EU needs to keep its word to leaders who reach out to neighbours and minorities at home in a true spirit of reconciliation. In summer 2017 North Macedonia concluded a friendship treaty with Bulgaria and in summer 2018 it reached the Prespa Agreement with Greece. In January 2019 Albanian became the second official language of the country. According to the European Commission, North Macedonia has also made more reform progress in the last year than the two front-runners Montenegro and Serbia. If the EU now lets down the Western Balkan’s most pro-European government, why should anyone else in the Western Balkans take such political risks in the future? Anti-European forces would rejoice all over the region and portray the EU as an insincere cheat.

North Macedonia has also made more reform progress in the last year than the two front-runners Montenegro and Serbia.

Second, North Macedonia is as advanced in its reforms as the front runners in the process. Comparing the latest assessments of the European Commission from May 2019, North Macedonia is doing as well as Montenegro and Serbia. The argument that “North Macedonia is not ready to start accession talks” is untenable.

Third, even once accession negotiations started, the question of North Macedonia becoming a member will not be on the agenda for many years. Those times when the start of negotiations automatically led to accession are long gone. Serbia has started negotiations in 2014, Montenegro in 2012. Both are still far from joining. Turkey has started in 2005 – 14 years ago – and is further from joining than at the beginning.

Supporting accession negotiations with North Macedonia now means to strengthen the EU’s influence in the Western Balkans; to strengthen reformers in North Macedonia and the whole region; to weaken those anti-European forces that claim that the EU cannot be trusted, that the vision of a prosperous and stable future in the EU is an illusion, and that every nation needs to fend for itself.

This is a dangerous vision. The EU and all member states must keep alive the “beautiful dreams” and maintain the prospect of a European future for West Balkan reformers. Starting accession negotiations with North Macedonia now means providing credibility to this prospect, at very low cost.

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