French President Emmanuel Macron has been taking a lot of heat for his refusal to continue the business-as-usual approach to EU expansion. Some accused him of slamming the door to the EU aspirations of Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).
In mid-November of 2019, the French government had presented a “non-paper” which laid out a seven-stage conditional process to EU membership that notably was also reversible. Even entering into negotiations with the EU no longer implies a positive conclusion.
In early February, the European Commission tried to meet the French government more than half way. It acknowledged that, from now on, greater focus would be put on ensuring “fundamental reforms” to the rule of law, fighting corruption, the economy, and properly functioning democratic institutions, stressing that “negotiations on the fundamentals will be opened first and closed last.”
Kohl’s and Mitterrand’s wishful thinking
In his defense, Monsieur Macron can rightfully point to a number of key points. None of them is more important than the lesson that France has learned from the euro’s launch for future European endeavors: Wishful thinking does not a solid common future make.
Unlike Messrs. Kohl and Mitterrand assumed at the time of the euro’s inception, sweeping important political decisions (such as the institution of a common fiscal policy) deliberately under the rug does not lead to any magic resolution of the underlying conflicts later on.
From Macron’s perspective, there is a clear lesson in that. To the maximum extent possible, he does not want it to be repeated in other policy areas. After all, as one can see to this very day, the underlying tension inside the eurozone only keeps festering, making the ultimate resolution that much more painful or elusive.
British wool over continental eyes
The second point validating Macron’s soberer and more conditional approach on the Western Balkans is an outright rejection of Britain’s longstanding EU “philosophy.” In order to slow walk the EU, since the days of Maggie Thatcher successive UK governments have operated under the mantra of “widening, not deepening.”
Given the longstanding British hesitation to make common cause with Brussels and the continent, the preference to enlarge the circle of EU members was only logical.
The more the membership moved beyond the original six, the better cards Britain held. And the more the hands of Germany and France, the two more integrationist governments, were simultaneously weakened.
The EU’s second bad mistake
The most important factor standing in the way of EU membership for countries in the Western Balkans is the EU’s experience with Romania and Bulgaria. If anyone has effectively closed the doors to EU membership for North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia etc., it is the two countries that joined the EU in 2007 as the fifth wave of EU membership.
To this very day, these two countries are still being hollowed out every day by utterly corrupt elites. It was thus naïve, and at best reflected extremely wishful thinking, that these two countries were allowed into the EU.
The path of Bulgaria and Romania inside the EU is a most vivid reminder that the EU’s usual strategy of “hope and pray for self-reform” simply does not work.
Enter Macron, the realist
Far from being specious, Macron’s stance on further EU expansion injects a much-needed dose of realism into EU affairs. The fact that he is not willing to sweep clear forms of conditionality under the rug is a precondition for the further functioning of the EU.
EU membership does have to be earned. If a given country’s civil society and governance structures are not strong enough, EU membership cannot be extended.
In structurally weak countries, EU membership induces more corruption
Countries that are still riddled with Communist-era personal alliances among politicians and parties – and thus have weak governance structures – are ideal breeding grounds for yet more corruption.
After all, given the ampleness of the EU’s structural funds, corruption is far more lucrative now than it ever was. Thus, the funds meant to advance EU cohesion and expansion, in reality achieve the opposite.
Furthermore, Hungary under Orban and Poland under PiS and Kaczynski are clear evidence of the fact that even countries which had relatively solid post-Communist governance structures can fall prey to irresponsible domestic elites who engage in kleptocracy. The nomenklatura-style mindset and attitudes haven’t really changed.
Painting the “Turkey, Russia and China” devil at the door
Finally, what to make of those who seek to advance the cause of the Western Balkan countries by painting the devil of Turkey, Russia and China at the EU’s door?
They ought to be reminded of two crucial facts: First, the Western Balkan countries’ economic “bread” will still largely be buttered by EU-based enterprises.
And second, it remains in these membership-aspiring countries’ immense self-interest to keep pursuing the path toward clean governance.
For the EU 27, giving in to the fear-mongering of Turkey, Russia and China eating up the Western Balkan countries would only repeat the earlier errors of being too lax in laying down the proper forms of conditionality for the eurozone and EU membership expansions.
Finally, it should be noted that the economic “might” of these Western Balkan countries is negligible — and therefore no great prize for anybody.
Allowing these countries to enter the EU, however, would grant them with disproportionate political might. And if these countries fail to adopt or to maintain democratic structures, they will strengthen the hands of Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.
In the end, such empowerment would further undermine the rule of law in the entire EU and deepen the crises of Western European democracies.
That Emmanuel Macron is now focusing on strengthening the EU, rather than blindly expanding it, is a key step on the road to preserving the EU and its core functions. As it stands, Macron’s actions are driven by four key considerations:
1. With the UK on the way out, he is no longer willing to continue the British path of widening, not deepening.
2. If the EU is to be a cohesive global player, along with the United States, China and India, it urgently needs to streamline its internal decision-making processes.
3. France has a strategic culture and a cohesive policymaking elite, while Germany, its major European counterpart, simply has neither. The latter only excels in one regard – muddled thinking.
4. For that reason, it remains a very open question whether Emmanuel Macron’s desire for a more hands-on, strategic willingness on the part of a future German government to engage with the world in the post-Merkel era will be fulfilled.
Emmanuel Macron's restrictive stance on EU membership for the Western Balkans injects a much-needed dose of realism into EU affairs.
The lesson that France has learned from the euro’s launch for future European endeavors: Wishful thinking does not a solid common future make.
Validating Macron’s more conditional approach to the Western Balkans is an outright rejection of Britain’s longstanding EU philosophy -- “widening, not deepening.”
EU membership has to be earned. If a given country’s civil society and governance structures are not strong enough, EU membership cannot be extended.
It remains to be seen whether Macron’s desire for a more hands-on Germany in the post-Merkel era will be fulfilled.