Macron and the EU enlargement make-believe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Philippe Etienne (L) diplomatic adviser to French President, French President Emmanuel Macron (2-L) German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2-R) and German foreign policy adviser Jan Hecker (R) during the Western Balkan Conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 29 April 2019. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

French politicians’ fear of losing votes in the elections jeopardizes the dream of uniting Europe, writes Srdjan Cviijic.

Srdjan Cvijic works for the Open Society European Policy Institute.

“The candidate countries pretend they want to reform and we pretend we want them to join the EU”. I’ve been listening to this sentence ever since the European Summit in Thessaloniki in 2003 when the EU invited the Western Balkans countries to join. Hoping to be funny, pundits repeat it at conferences on EU enlargement ad nauseam. It’s as funny as the metaphor “the glass is half full or half empty” is original.

The opposite is true.

To reassure their voters some EU governments are pretending that they don’t want the Western Balkans in. As for the Western Balkans leaders, they are no longer even pretending to reform. They don’t need to. With the EU membership carrot rotten there seems to be a total disconnect between a country’s performance and progress on the EU accession path.

Just look at the enlargement’s frontrunners Montenegro and Serbia and the dismal state of democracy in both countries. According to the Freedom House Serbia is no longer ranked as a “free country”. Montenegro has not experienced the change of governing party since the introduction of democracy almost 30 years ago.

The European Commission is expected to publish its yearly reports on the progress of candidate and potential candidates towards EU membership after the European Parliament elections on 29 May. It is highly likely that it will recommend the opening of the EU accession negotiations with two additional countries: Albania and North Macedonia.

EU member states need to agree with this.

In France they fear even mentioning the word enlargement. They worry about its unpopularity with the voters at home and that it might hurt them politically.

This is why the yearly reports of the European Commission will be published after the European Parliament elections and not when everyone expected them in April (a year after the publication of the 2018 reports). This is why the Western Balkans leaders were invited to join their European peers in Sofia a year ago and not three weeks ago at the European Summit in Sibiu.

How many times have you heard the phrase referring to the former-communist countries that joined the EU in 2004 or later: “we let them in too early”?

Presumably, if they waited in line longer they would have had a stronger democracy and the rule of law. This is nonsense. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has built its authoritarian state from within the EU and the presidents of Serbia Vučić or Montenegro Djukanović did it waiting to join outside.

There is nothing irreversible about democracy.  Not only have the last 70 years of the united European project taught us this, but the entire history of humanity. Whether you are an EU member state or a candidate country matters little.

Hoping to ‘repair’ the countries for good before they join the EU is like painting the sealing of your apartment to cover the water leak from your upstairs neighbor instead of repairing his sink.

The upstairs neighbor is Orbán’s Hungary and other illiberal countries in the EU.  Balkan nations aspiring to join the EU are watching Orbán and friends establish one-party states inside EU’s borders with interest. Should the EU let Hungary slide further into authoritarianism, Brussels can be sure the Balkans will follow.

President Macron is right in saying that Europe should reform itself. An important part of the solution is stopping the illiberal contagion of the EU and the Western Balkans. To fix the leaking sink the EU must strengthen its checks on rule of law after membership. As for them, the candidate countries need to fulfill clear conditions for membership before joining.

Where the French President is wrong is in saying that reforming the EU should come before the EU membership of the Western Balkans. If we’d taken this approach with previous enlargements we would have had a new cold war and Putin knocking at our front door. Keeping the Western Balkans in the eternal waiting room has brought Russia through our back door. Now Putin is playing in our inner court yard and threatening EU’s vital interests.

Deepening and widening of the Union have always developed in parallel. Without the Western Balkans in the EU the dream of a unified Europe would not be complete. The fear of losing votes at home jeopardizes this dream.

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