(Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)
Some of the Western Balkan states that aspire to join the EU are (re)living the unpredictable narrative of EU enlargement. The Republic of North Macedonia, notably, has recently recognised the commended, one and only ‘window of opportunity’ and changed its constitutional name in order to advance in the EU and NATO membership processes. The promise the EU made to this country was that the negotiation process would be opened. After all, North Macedonia has been resignedly waiting for the EU Ministers to launch negotiation talks for more than a decade now. The ‘change in goodwill’ was and still is expected to come foremost from France and the Netherlands, as the countries most opposed to further EU enlargement.
At the last EU Summit, the Member States’ ministers for European affairs again decided to delay opening accession talks with North Macedonia (and Albania), based on the failure to reach unanimous agreement from all 28-member states to launch the process, with France and the Netherlands as the leading opposing states.
This pattern of decision-making is, however, not new. Nor does it speak only about heightened concern for the countries’ further democratic prospects if the Balkan states, especially in the case of North Macedonia, once again fail to begin the negotiation process with the EU. It also raises legitimate concerns for the EU’s credibility and the positions of EU institutions.
Indeed, it is not the first time that the European Council has bypassed the opinion(s) of the European Commission on the further enlargement to the Western Balkan countries, including Macedonia, a typical case of a country that has sufficiently stretched its political legitimacy in order to stay under the radar of the EU’s interests, community and values. Back in 2005, there was also resistance to enlargement coming from the same EU Member States, following the referendums earlier that year in France and the Netherlands. In these referendums voters rejected the Union’s planned constitution, as some of the voters saw the EU’s willingness for enlargement as a potential threat. In particular, Turkey’s membership was seen as raising the prospect of a European border with the Middle East. Nowadays, the governments of France and the Netherlands argue that the EU should first focus on its own internal weaknesses prior to starting any new negotiations, and second, the applying states must deliver effective results in rooting out corruption and organised crime.
Indeed, EU Member States have a legitimate right to require the applying states to root out corruption, fight organised crime, increase the impartiality of the judiciary and practice the rule of law as proof that they are sustainable democracies. Corruption seriously undermines the rule of law, economic prospects and the state’s legitimacy. However, the EU still fails to recognise the leading role that it can play in tackling these challenges in a broader European setting. Back in 2005, the EU also failed to recognise two things: first, the extent to which these challenges are systemically interlinked and mutually interdependent, and second, how much the EU can help these societies in their transformative tasks if tackling these problems is also led by good examples and the sharing of best practices. Moreover, the Member States’ ministers for EU affairs failed to recognise the impact of the decisions they took, on the nation-state level, notably when the democratic specifics of the state are assumed, or taken as given.
Nowadays, however, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn stresses that the EU has learned its lessons from the past and that the Member States are now deeply focused on the quality of the processes, rather than only on a ‘ticking the box’ approach. Indeed, the European Commission has increased its knowledge and expertise in the region and the complexity of the systemic interlinkages between corruption and the other violations of norms. It has also acknowledged the fact that the EU has the greatest leverage during negotiations. This process also particularly serves as a learning mechanism, and each country willing to learn the democratic lessons should have the possibility to enter the process, thought it might take years to complete it.
The expectations that the applying states have the transformative potential to root out corruption and interlinked challenges, on their own, are however improbable. The visions and the political will of the domestic politicians and the EU ministers also matter. The decisions taken at the European Council affect the behaviour of the elites, but also the attitudes of generations of citizens waiting to be taken into account. Having said that, it is fair to say that the Macedonian constitutional name change was never only a matter of the EU perspective or the ‘price to be paid’ for domestic and regional stability. It was also a matter of sovereignty and the interpretation of the public interest. Consequently, it was also a matter of values. The lessons from the past have shown that if or when external demands and internal values are not bridged quickly enough, institutional gaps and black boxes are created, and therein discrepancies and corruptive behaviour are born, encouraged or justified. In other words, every subversion of the quality of decision-making processes in the long term affects political legitimacy, the process of justification and citizens’ attachment to their political systems.
Thus, when French President Emmanuel Macron argues that ‘the EU should reform unwieldy procedures for making decisions’, breaking some old patterns could be a starting point. Namely, by acknowledging the position of the European Commission (and the European Parliament), the EU’s Council of Ministers can start re-building the EU’s internal capacities to recognise and mitigate risks before they develop further. Corruption and its interlinked challenges indeed have potential to trigger an economic and political crisis if not addressed in a systemic manner or on time. Short-time agendas for big changes in anti-corruption are also unrealistic, as the implementation of the law requires strong institutional and social trust. Once it has experienced it, a democratically matured society can potentially learn and exercise the standards of the rule-based system, based on integrity and legality in the domestic and international context.
The patterns, however, need to be broken. The EU Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, as well as the former Enlargement Commissioners, Olli Rehn and Štefan Füle, have been trying to convince EU foreign ministers not to shut the doors to the Western Balkan applicants. Then and now, on many occasions North Macedonia in particular has been described as a European success story that has largely contributed to peace and security in the region. For one of the poorest states in the EU, such encouragement meant a lot in 2005. Today it is insufficient, and it (again) looks like a failed promise, which undermines the EU’s credibility. Moreover, in this modern context a state needs to bear the burden of limited sovereignty. Therefore, legitimate EU politics should be able to recognise forged gaps or vacuums and take responsible decisions accordingly. Then, it can start recovering from within as well.
 The views expressed here those of the author’s and the Research Executive Agency or the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained within.