The European Council’s decision not to open formal accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania today might go down in history as one of the most ill-advised policy decisions the EU has ever taken with respect to the Western Balkans – and that is quite something considering how contested that particular field is. Today, the Council did not just change a particular policy, but betrayed one of the fundamental principles of the European Union: the adherence to the pre-set rules of the game. Since today, at least from the Western Balkans perspective, the EU is no longer a “rules-based order”, but has become part of “politics as usual”.
Granted, there are good reasons for not taking this step today. Everybody knows that the accession process, as it is currently conducted, suffers from some major problems. That the countries of the Western Balkans could have progressed on their path towards EU membership in recent years while at the same time the quality of their democratic systems backslided and illiberal and authoritarian politics became ever more dominant, points to just one of the challenges the current system faces. Also, the role of parliaments, the civil society, and the power asymmetries involved in the process need to be looked at. Furthermore, the quintessential formula of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law needs to take a more prominent position in the entire enlargement process––something even the “fundamentals first” approach adopted by the Commission has done only to an insufficient degree.
All this is well known, and all of it is correct. But what makes today’s decision so colossally misguided is the fact that the EU broke its word. For years, it has been telling North Macedonia that it will progress on its path towards the European Union and benefit from all the goodies of being a candidate country if it only found a solution with Greece with respect to the name issue. North Macedonia delivered: its voters ousted the old government, the new government agreed to the historic Prespa agreement with Greece and changed the country’s name. True to its word, the EU Commission recommended to reward these efforts with the candidacy status.
And now? What kind of signal does the decision of the EU Council send? That you cannot trust the EU. That their words are not worth anything. That the Commission is not empowered to speak in the EU’s name.
Think about it. For years now, the EU has been saying that the political, economic and social systems in the Western Balkans are in need of reform. The domestic politicians agreed and committed themselves to the process; yet they also know that, for them, the current system actually works quite well. They benefit from all the shortcomings in the rule of law, or from being able to sustain large patronage networks by exploiting state resources. So, while they pay lip-service to enlargement, they don’t really want to reform and thus cut off the hand that feeds them and their networks. It is for that reason that the EU has been the only true driver of reform. And because even the domestic politicians know that every now and then they have to show some progress, they reformed gradually, though never fully, and sometimes not even substantially. The only constant in this story has been the EU, and some have put their hopes in Brussels actually helping them and supporting their efforts to make the domestic elites comply with those values the EU stands for and has listed in Article 2 of the Treaty.
After today, those fighting for change, those wishing to see genuine reform and progress will have heard the EU’s message loudly and clearly: you are on your own!