20 December 2019

France’s veto for Albania and North Macedonia – consequences for the future of Western Balkans states' integration

Stelian Teodorescu

Since 2003, when the EU invited Western Balkans states to make the necessary requests in order to start the process of accession, only Croatia managed to finish that process. The other potential accession candidates are at different stages in the evolution of their relations with EU.

Image source: Mediafax

The state of negotiations
The very slow progress achieved in negotiations between the EU and Serbia and Montenegro, the lack of any progresses with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) and Kosovo, but especially the decision to postpone accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania define the current state of the process to integrate Western Balkans state in the EU. It can be said that very progresses have been made, sometimes even regresses, and the EU’s enlargement process in the region is nearly frozen.

In some analytical areas, there have been signals that North Macedonia seems to win individual EU support to begin accession talks before Albania, which is faced with the opposition of France, Germany and the Netherlands. “North Macedonia has a good chance (for EU membership talks), given the historic resolution of its name issue,” said a high EU official, referring to a dispute which lasted decades with Greece and blocked the country’s path to the EU and NATO.

Changing the country’s name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of North Macedonia offered hope to leaders in Skopje and the population that Paris, Berlin and the Hague will continue to support negotiations with the EU.

“But Albania is still a big issue for some governments. It is not looking so promising,” the official added, because it is perceived as one of the most corrupt states in Europe, according to Transparency International, and made limited progress in fighting money laundering, despite the firing of corrupt judges and prosecutors. The other four states in the Western Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro, BIH and Kosovo, also want to accede to the EU. The state of negotiations is presented in the following chart:


Accession requested

Candidate status granted

Start of negotiations

Membership Granted


























Bosnia and Herzegovina











France’s decision and its probable consequences
In October 2019, France used its veto right to block accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, stating that the EU must first reform its enlargement policy, by taking into account the criteria of gradual association of candidate states before they become full-right members. The new European Commission could file more detailed proposals in this regard in January 2020.

Therefore, France’s decision to oppose the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, which is seen by other states as regrettable, generated discontent all over Europe. France was accused of committing a “historical mistake”, of undermining the stability of the Western Balkans, contributing to this region’s potential to see a rise of the influence of Russia, China and other international actors and, implicitly, damaging the credibility of the EU.

Currently, this blockage seems to be a short-term process, but postponing integration will weaken the EU’s credibility, as well as stimulants for internal reform in every aspiring Western Balkans state. The postponement also has a negative effect on weaker and less prepared Western Balkans entities, such as BIH and Kosovo. Furthermore, although there is still an internal consensus in the region that the EU is the ultimate political objective, the union’s popularity is decreasing in some of the entities in the region.

We should also mention the fact that France first blocked the launch of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in June 2018, with a compromise reached at the time for a one-year delay, based on a new set of conditions. Many observers noted then that France’s reticence to open accession negotiations was also determined by electoral reasons, as that the decision was taken in the period before European elections in May 2019.

At an international level, North Macedonia and Albania are considered states which deserve to continue their integration efforts, because there is the perception that they have respected the rules imposed by the EU and made significant efforts to enact internal reforms, in the hopes of obtaining results which would ensure their accession to the EU.

Italian PM Giuseppe Conte described the decision to block North Macedonia’s and Albania’s EU course as a “historical error”, and the former Belgian PM and current European Council President Charles Michel also promised to not give up on the integration of the two states in the EU.

The limited progresses achieved by the states in the region led to an increase in EU strictness and the conditions it imposed, and essentially contributed to extending the accession process, but also considerably lowering the level of optimism in this regard. A recent poll showed that the populations of Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and France are becoming increasingly reticent towards the EU accession of Western Balkans states within the following decade.

Internationally, there were assessments according to which 80 years would be required for Kosovo’s per capita GDP to reach the level Croatia had at its accession, and another 20 for BIH to leach the level of governance Bulgaria and Romania had when these states acceded.

Following the latest regional evolutions and assessments made for the EU, without a credible course for accession, the Western Balkans could become a very favourable region for the development of the nationalistic current, but also a favourable environment for Russia, China and Turkey.

In this context, the stance taken by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is illuminating, after the latter told Financial Times that EU decisions have generated a sentiment that the region cannot exclusively count on their Western neighbours. The point of view expressed by the Serbian leader attempts to justify his decision to allow the increase of Russia’s role and influence in the Serbia’s energy and defence sectors. Despite this, it is clear that not only Russia offers attractive perspectives to Western Balkans countries, as China’s extensive economic investments, especially in regional infrastructure, can be criticized by Brussels, despite the fact that they effectively complete and counteract already existing gaps and vulnerabilities in the region.

President Macron’s vision on the EU’s enlargement process

The decision made by French President E. Macron to block the beginning of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania (in this second case with the support of Denmark and the Netherlands) surprised Western Balkans entities, as there were very high hopes in the region regarding the re-affirmation of EU perspectives.

Despite the fact that it exerted its veto right on the EU accession process of North Macedonia and Albania, France refuses to completely separate the two entities from such a process, even as other EU members supported its assertion that Albania is not ready for accession.

Explaining his decision in the European Council meeting, the French president said the following: “We need a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process, a real credibility and a strategic vision of who we are and our role”. He is convinced that without a clear reform process, the EU will be paralyzed by the accession of new members, most probably referring to Western Balkans entities in this context.

France has had a long-time belief that enlargement is fundamentally incompatible with deeper European integration, highlighting the rising differences identified in Eastern Europe, including the Western Balkans, with regards to migration, problems concerning the rule of law and field of defence, as well as the lacklustre handling of Euro-related crises and the rejection of all proposals to further integrate the monetary union.

France’s opposition to the enlargement process in the Western Balkans raised questions on the EU’s capacity to model strategic development and stability in South-Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the reticence shown by France in supporting enlargement into the Western Balkans can be attributed to Paris’ historical preferences for a more thorough and integrated union.

In his speeches in Athens, Sorbonne, Strasbourg and Aix-la-Chapelle, Macron clearly requested an EU reform and made a series of proposals in this regard. They especially refer to a reform of the Economic and Monetary Union, the Schengen Agreement or the EU’s social policy, promoting a European industrial and digital policy, strategic autonomy and European democracy and registering a progress in Europe’s denfece.

As previous President Francois Mitterand, Macron is also a firm believer of a Europe of concentric circles,  mentioning aspects relevant to this fact several times, including at the annual conference of French ambassadors in 2018 and 2019. Macron referred to three potential concentric circles: a core circle with a deep customs, social and economic union; a second circle with a strong single market, which could handle digital or defence problems; a third circles consisting of a values and economic freedom union.

The French president considers that the various EU mechanism and the asymmetrical integration levels between member states must be reset. The current version of a “a la carte” EU, through a member state or candidate can or cannot belong to the Schengen area or Eurozone, for example, increases the current model’s level of complexity and lack of coherence.

Therefore, it should be remarked that France justifies its recent veto by reasoning that the two states did not respect all the necessary conditions to launch accession negotiations, but also reaffirms the fact that Balkan states will be a part of a reformed EU. In this context, Macron and Serbian President A. Vucic issued a joint statement during the French leader’s state visit to Belgrade, in which they state that Serbia, which has already opened several negotiation chapters and hopes to be a full-fledged EU member by 2025, could join a “reformed EU”.

Therefore, it is significant to point out that France is attempting to convince the international community that Western Balkans states should become EU members, but this should happen in a new process and gradually. In the same context, it was highlighted that “wrapping out negotiations for each phase achieved by each country would open up the possibility to take part in corresponding EU programmes, of being associate to certain relevant sectorial policies and, should it be the case, to benefit from certain targeted funding,” with the “final objective remaining a full and complete accession”.

The US stance on the matter

Appointing a special envoy for the Western Balkans would be a good beginning, with a model in this regard being the US’ recent decisions to send two separate special envoys, regional envoy Matthew Palmer, and a special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Richard Grenell. This type of attitude is the proof of Washington’s major interest in identifying and applying a real and solid political solution.

Therefore, the US is collaborating with its European allies to offer an alternate background for the normalization of relations between Western Balkans entities, with recent proposals for a common regional market and the region’s integration in the European economic space offering alternate ways of interaction and cooperation.

According to international information, the US could make the necessary efforts to convince France to withdraw its veto, under the certainty that “America wishes for the Western Balkans to have an European perspective and will do everything in its power to convince the EU to change its stance before the following meeting of member states, which will take place in Zagreb in May 2020,” as stated by Special Envoy Matthew Palmer, in Belgrade (04.11.2019).


The reform proposed by President Macron is majorly influenced by the effects of the growth of right-wing nationalism, mass migration and Brexit.

The key notion that could be taken from Macron’s initiative is that Europeans should generate a system of “concentric circles” for the European integration of the Western Balkans, with each interior circle proving that a state is involved in increasingly closer and more realistic relations in the EU, and ultimately resulting in a gradual integration of all the entities in the region.

With a reformed EU after this plan, talks could be launched on the different stages of integration and classification which both candidate states and current member states aspire two. Through this model, Balkan countries could integrate individually and progressively into the EU, with regional entities acceding into the exterior circle first, and later heading towards the centre of the system.

Therefore, France’s veto could be seen a risky decision promoted by Macron in order to strengthen the process to promote internal reforms in candidate-states. If these are accomplished successfully, with the states wishing to see through all their obligation in order to open accession discussions or several chapters, France could cancel its veto on the matter. In this context, it should be remarked that this is the same strategy Nicolas Sarkozy used to ably promote the approval of the Lisbon Treaty.

In this context, Serbia could be seen as a clear example of potential risks generated by the integration process, because President Vucic stated that the veto justifies Serbia’s closer ties with Russia and China, with Chinese authorities proving that the region is considered very important towards accomplishing its “Belt and Road” initiative.

If Macron fully believes in an EU future for the Western Balkans, he should offer certain tangible projects to contribute to the region’s stabilization. In this context, France could support the development of the “Mini-Schengen” area, a project recently promoted by Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia, which was proposed following a trilateral reunion on 10.10.2019, but which does not include Kosovo.

Therefore, in the current context, France will have to accept its responsibility for the consequences of the veto, and clearly explain the reasons for promoting this initiative, as well as specifying very clearly that the EU’s reform is the final objective, if this is the case. At the same time, France must not overlook the consequences of the damages which could be caused in the region by the multiple interpretations, positive and negative, of its decision to use the veto. Additionally, Macron must establish a clear strategy for the Western Balkans and promote an increased collaboration between entities in the region, as well as conceive and establish the ways through which France could contribute to solving the numerous long-term conflicts in the region.

Despite all this, it can stated that, as EU will impose conditions which will significantly slow down the integration of the Western Balkans, Chinese and Russian influence will also grow, exerting an attraction which, in time, could prove to be powerful enough to undermine the current fragile peace in the area and disconnect the states in the region from the process of strengthening their pro-Western democratic bases.

In this context, Washington could intensify its initiatives, in order to ensure that the failure of the European project will not signify the end of the post-Yugoslav order and has the chance to practically return to the area where it had its biggest foreign policy achievements after the end of the Cold War, in a region where the US still has long-term objectives to support a “wholesome, free and peaceful” Europe. In order to achieve this, the US must undertake a series of short-term and long-term initiatives in the entire region, initially in order to stabilize the general situation in the area, which has been significantly influenced by the French veto, and later to offer a convincing and durable American vision for the future of the Western Balkans.

Translated by Ionut Preda