Isabelle Ioannides

EU Enlargement to the Western Balkans is still alive

Brussels, 4 November 2019 - By Isabelle Ioannides

The unfortunate European Council decision of October 2019 not to open EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania is just the latest manifestation of fatigue with the EU enlargement process, not only in the Western Balkans but in the EU side too. Yet long before this Council decision, the EU institutions and its Member States had made certain demands for reforms on North Macedonia and Albania in return for the promise of moving forward on their EU accession path. The exasperation felt today is that of empty promises and broken dreams. It has already given rise to alternative scenarios and 'Plan B's if EU enlargement to the Western Balkans were not to materialise. Already at the beginning of the Juncker Commission, it had become clear that EU enlargement would be for the long haul. In that sense, ways to keep the momentum for reform and initiatives from the region were welcomed. Nevertheless, the new EU legislature, for all its uncertainties, may be a sign that the dream of a European perspective for the Western Balkans is not over.

A pro-European, even if fragmented, European Parliament

The new European Parliament (EP) has a profoundly renewed face, with only 295 Members having been re-elected in May 2019. That means that 435 Members of the EP (58% compared to 48,5% in 2014) are new. This Parliament has also seen new groups gain strength, with an increase in the representation of Renew Europe and the Greens.

European parliament

While this has ensured the continuation of a pro-European absolute majority in the EP, it has also meant that a grand coalition between the two main groups – the European Popular Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – is no longer enough to get through legislation. Both parties suffered losses in the European elections. With 108 Members (14 more than in 2014), Renew Europe is seen as potentially playing a rebalancing role in EP. Along with the Greens, these two parties have become key allies in a fragmented parliament where an absolute majority necessitates (depending on the configuration) at least three out of the four pro-European parties cooperating. In parallel, the EP witnessed a sharp erosion of the far left and important gains on the far right.

Since the nomination of the von der Leyen team, debates on contested names of portfolios and designated Commissioners have brought to the fore the potential diminishing returns of a fragmented EP. The dynamics of possible coalitions and possible fragmentation across political parties have also played out during the hearings of the designate Commissioners and the rejection of one from each of the bigger political parties in the EP.

Nevertheless, the results of the European elections are encouraging for the Western Balkan region since pro-EU enlargement parties remain in power in the new legislature. In a letter to the candidate for the post as new European Commission President, leader of the S&D Iratxe Garcia had asked, among other things, for support to opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019. Since then, the S&D has also called for opening accession negotiations with the two countries at the October 2019 EU Council meeting. When addressing the European Council that rejected opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, on 17 October 2019, EP President David Sassoli (S&D) also supported the European Commission recommendation to open negotiations with both countries. He made clear that, “[w]hen we call on neighbouring countries to make an extra effort to change and they do so, it is our duty to make a similar effort”.[1]

Renew Europe did not include EU enlargement policy in their conditions for confirming the von der Leyen nomination in July 2019, but the ALDE party (as it was called in the previous legislature) has traditionally been in favour of EU enlargement, as has the European People’s Party. The EPP President Joseph Daul had expressed his support for the opening of EU accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania, as had EPP Chairman Manfred Weber. For their part, the divisive patterns of action of the far right when push comes to shove in EU decision-making on key EU topics means that these parties will probably not pose a threat to the Western Balkans’ EU accession path.

Members with a long experience on the Western Balkans and supporters of the European perspective of the region remain in key positions in the EP configurations. EPP Member David McAllister, recognised for his extensive knowledge of and experience in EU foreign policy, including the EU enlargement process, stays on as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the previous legislature, he had also been the Chair of the EP Delegation to Serbia. S&D Member Tanja Fajon, known for her support of EU-Kosovo visa liberalisation and EU enlargement, more generally, now holds this post. S&D Member Andreas Schieder, newly elected Chair of the EP Delegation to North Macedonia, had also supported opening EU accession talks with the country and retweeted the S&D group’s strong reaction to the European Council decision: “We are outraged by total inability of European leaders to decide anything on North Macedonia and Albania in EUCO. This damages the credibility of EU and its institutions and any leverage in the Western Balkans region and on world stage.” [2] In fact, in its October plenary, Parliament passed a motion expressing deep disappointment over the failure to agree on opening EU accession talks with the two countries at the latest EU summit.

A pro-EU enlargement European Commission, despite uncertainties

In July 2019, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen secured European parliamentary approval with a very marginal majority to become the first female European Commission president. She won over the S&D group and Renew Europe with her vision of a greener, fairer and rule-based Europe. With the added endorsement by her fellow EPP, it is expected that she will have the necessary legitimacy to tackle controversial issues. It is in this context that the promises made by von der Leyen should be assessed.

Already during her campaigning for votes in Parliament for the confirmation of her nomination, von der Leyen stated in a letter to the S&D group, that North Macedonia is “a bright example of positive achievements” and pledged her support to EU enlargement despite the well-known reservations of some EU leaders. [3] In her Political Guidelines for the next European Commission, von der Leyen again committed to supporting “the European perspective of the Western Balkans” and to “stand[ing] behind the European Commission’s proposal to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania”. She also explained that she sees the accession process as an opportunity to promote and share EU values and interests: “We will build the same future together”. [4] In that light, von der Leyen continues in the steps of the 2018 Strategy for the Western Balkan of the Juncker Commission, which put the enlargement perspective of the region back on the EU agenda. Indeed, both she and European Commission President Juncker deeply regretted the October 2019 European Council decision.

In the meantime, rumours about the future of current DG NEAR are rightfully causing unease among the candidate and potential candidate countries. Similarly, the nomination of Spain’s current Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as the next EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission (HRVP) has raised eyebrows since Spain is one of the five countries of the EU that do not recognise Kosovo. However, a more nuanced look at Spain and Borrell’s positions is needed. While arguably Spain has hardened its stance against the recognition of Kosovo or the development of bilateral relations with Kosovo, Borrell – a hard opponent to Catalan independence – has quite controversially suggested that Kosovo is an independent state. In late 2017, he stated, “Catalonia is not a colony, it is not occupied, it is not a state like Kosovo”. He has also argued that if Serbia recognised Kosovo it would facilitate its EU accession process. [5] Equally, a Spanish HRVP would mark the first institutionalised communication between Spain and Kosovo since the 2008 unilateral declaration of independence, given that Spanish representatives have refused to communicate with or participate in meetings with their counterparts from Kosovo. To the surprise of many, Borrell announced during his hearing in Parliament for his confirmation as HRVP that his first official visit would be to Pristina. Ultimately, regardless of Borrell’s positions on the Western Balkans – or indeed those of Spain – the HRVP will coordinate EU political action with all EU Member states and form positions that are in line with EU pledges already made to the region.

Hesitant EU Member States in the shadow of the Brexit collateral

Experts have argued that EU Member States will play a stronger role in guiding policy, including EU enlargement, in the new legislature. They explain that a move from Juncker’s political to a “politicised” European Commission under von der Leyen, one that is subject to more pressure from Member States, could compromise the Commission’s role as guardian of the EU Treaties. [6] In a way, EU Member States’ backroom dealings that led to a deviation from the expected Spitzenkandidat process, were a precursor to how they may deal with the EU accession process. The latest European Council decision not to open EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania give a better sense of the hurdles ahead. It also points to the need to take seriously France’s insistence to reform the EU enlargement process. Given the focus on reforming the EU internally, it is questionable whether EU enlargement will be a priority for Member States. Rather, the responsibility for reform will be put even more squarely on the political elites in the Western Balkans, asking them to implement EU legal and institutional standards.

With three European Commissioners (France, Hungary and Romania), still not confirmed by the EP, much speculation remains on the distribution of responsibilities and the importance EU enlargement will have in the new legislature. As things stand, the EU enlargement dossier does not seem directly linked to the responsibilities of the incoming HRVP. Not once does von der Leyen mention EU enlargement, the Western Balkans or any of the countries of the region, in her six-page mission letter sent to the designate-HRVP Borrell. Moreover, while the Executive Vice-Presidents in the von der Leyen Commission will oversee their own directorate general and therefore have their own resources for their own initiatives, the HRVP post will rely on the European Commission’s General Secretariat and only have a coordination role. Rather, Borrell will be supported by the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is rumoured not to handle directly anymore the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue that would be delegated to a special EU envoy.

Experts and Members of the EP had raised concerns on the choice of Hungary for the post as Commissioner for the neighbourhood and enlargement. László Trócsányi, who is not a member of the country’s ruling Fidesz party but was Hungary’s Justice Minister at a time when government worked to undermine the checks and balances, was rejected by the EP on grounds of conflict of interests. Observers had cautioned against the message his nomination would have given to the Western Balkans leaders, a region where rule of law reforms need to be intensified rather than the opposite. Hungary remains a sensitive choice for the EU enlargement dossier, given that Orbán has given asylum to and refused to extradite North Macedonia’s former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled the country in November 2018. To counter this image, Hungary poses itself as a pro-EU enlargement country. The September 2019 statement on the Western Balkans by the Visegrad Group (V4, composed of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) has come at a key moment to remind Members of the EP that those countries do not stand in the way of EU enlargement. Beyond expressing their “unequivocal support for the EU accession of the Western Balkans”, the V4 specifically mentioned the European perspective of North Macedonia. They called on “all EU stakeholders, in view of the October General Affairs Council, to maintain and consolidate the positive momentum created as a result of the substantial progress made in reforms as well as the entry into force of the historic Prespa Agreement”. Surprisingly perhaps, the statement also points to the determination in supporting efforts in the Western Balkans to strengthen the rule of law, fight organised crime and corruption, regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations, and reconciliation. [7]

The anxiety in the EU Member States and at EU level because of the ever-changing timing on the United Kingdom’s (UK) departure from the EU (Brexit) and the potentially dire consequences Brexit could have on the EU, should not be underestimated. Already on 24 July 2019, the day of Boris Johnson’s appointment as UK Prime Minister, the EP coordination group on Brexit noted that although it looked forward to working closely and constructively with Johnson, the risk of a disorderly Brexit had greatly increased. The recent agreement on a reformed Withdrawal Agreement has secured that the UK, should it exit the EU, has secured that it would do so with a deal. However, the date at which Brexit will happen is a moving target. The European Council has just agreed on a new extension, now on 31st January 2020. This uncertainty plays on the level of the EU’s focus on enlargement to the Western Balkans. If/When the UK leaves the EU, the dynamics in the Council and in Parliament could be affected since the UK was one of the most EU enlargement- friendly countries, counter-balancing effectively the anti-enlargement countries. The October Council decision may be a taste of that. In the case of the opposite scenario materialising, whereby on the UK would still be part of the EU when the new European Commission is in office, its incoming President von der Leyen has already explained that the UK would have to name a Commissioner. Arguably, this will also depend on how long the United Kingdom will remain inside the EU. The rejection by Parliament of Hungary’s controversial Commissioner-designate could render the UK, which has been a protagonist on EU enlargement, a contender for the EU enlargement portfolio.

French President Macron's non may have been a necessary disrupter and the waking call we all needed to break away from 'business as usual' on EU enlargement. The EU approach has after all received criticism on the ineffectiveness of the conditionality policy, the double standards applied, the monitoring of progress on the enlargement process, among other. These will be challenges that the new EU legislature is likely to tackle quickly if it is serious about keeping the EU enlargement policy alive. It is also time for other EU Member States, especially those who are behind this project, to manifest themselves more vocally and vehemently. At the EU level, both in the European Commission and the European Parliament, the oui for EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is resounding.

[1] President’s speech at the European Council, European Parliament, Brussels, 17 October 2019.
[2] The S&D group’s twitter account: https://twitter.com/TheProgressives/status/1185160738408665088
[3] “Von der Leyen: I will support opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania”, European Western Balkans, 15 July 2019.
[4] von der Leyen, U., A Union that strives for more: My agenda for Europe, Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission 2019-2024, Brussels, July 2019, pp. 18, 21.
[5] Ferrero-Turrión, R., Spain: Kosovo’s Strongest Opponent in Europe, in Armakolas, I. and Ker-Lindsay, J. (eds), The Politics of Recognition and Engagement: EU Member State Relations with Kosovo, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2019, pp. 231-232.
[6] Blockmans, S. and D. Gros, From a political to a politicised Commission?, No 2019-12, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, September 2019.
[7] Visegrad Group, V4 Statement on the Western Balkans, Prague, 12 September 2019.


The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).