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The EU’s Sudden Decision to Freeze Accession Talks

By Charles Marsh, Research Fellow

Photo credit: European Commission
Photo credit: European Commission

The EU, largely at the behest of France, Denmark and the Netherlands, has decided to delay starting the accession process of North Macedonia and Albania, in favour of first focusing on consolidating existing member states.[1] Despite extensive debate on the matter, a decision on whether to officially open accession talks for these states has now been postponed till a future EU summit. In Mr. Macron’s own words: “I don’t want any further new members until we’ve reformed the European Union itself.” Whilst this might have been a reasonable position to take many years ago, Northern Macedonia and Albania have simply done too much to be spurned now.

Both nations have gone to great lengths to meet the standards demanded by the EU to begin the accession process, often at great difficulty. Most notably, Northern Macedonia fought a tense internal battle over changing its name, so as to resolve an ongoing dispute with Greece and move the EU accession process forward. Yet, after the great effort that was made, the EU has now in effect had to reward them with little more than a snub; this move has already lead to a snap election being called in Northern Macedonia.[2]

The decision has not gone unchallenged, however; the issue was debated for over six hours and, as previously mentioned, will be discussed again at a future EU summit. The President-Elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has emerged as a vocal critic of the delay, noting that EU had “asked a lot of North Macedonia and Albania, and they’ve fulfilled it all.”[3] Furthermore, incumbent President Jean-Claude Junker called the move a “grave, historic error,” a sentiment echoed by President of the European Council Donald Tusk.[4]

These internal divisions have not gone unnoticed, with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama noting that the two nations had become “collateral damage” to a conflict within the EU.[5] Such disagreements within the EU should never have been allowed to impact their regional partners in such a way, and in doing so the bloc has demonstrated a damaging vulnerability to their regional partners.

Indeed, these actions risk alienating existing and future members in the region, where old rivals like Russia and potential future rivals such as China still hold sway.[6] If one compares these actions with the notoriously loose restrictions on access to Chinese-led projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, one may begin to wonder why nations would choose to partner with the EU to assist with economic development.[7] Indeed, there are already signs that the Balkan states may be considering a future without EU integration, with North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia floating the idea of developing a “mini-Schengen” zone.[8] As such, the EU cannot afford at this point to become complacent about its role in the Balkans, as it seems to have done here. Through its own internal inconsistencies, it has given the impression of making unilateral decisions that harm committed partners; in doing so, it may soon find its influence in the region challenged.

Perhaps more importantly, such actions may also risk inflaming tensions within existing EU members, and President Macron’s role in this decision will certainly not help. Ironically, in his determination to consolidate the internal cohesion of the EU, he has acted as a great power using its role to overturn a move supported by many of the EU’s newer eastern members; accusations of such acts are common plays for populists in these regions. The EU needs to treat acceding states as partners, not as supplicants; in practice, this means responding in kind when these states act in good faith. Otherwise, the EU risks degrading its image of a mutually beneficial multilateral arrangement, both with member states and external partners.

This decision also reminds us of a core disparity at the heart of the EU’s self-perception; is it a supra-national nascent federation, or a bloc of sovereign nations? It is notable that criticism of the move has been most vocal from actors ultimately representing EU institutions. As long as larger member states can be allowed to run roughshod over the viewpoints of other member states and the EU itself, the idea of a cohesive EU as a global actor will not coalesce. If President Macron wishes to help EU integration, he should not seek to override the opinions of others. The EU still does not seem to know what it is, and this decision is indicative of that.

In acting as it has, the EU has displayed internal weaknesses, and allowed said weaknesses to hurt potential partners. This is the exact sort of vulnerability the EU’s rivals, both internal and external, will seek to exploit. It is too late for this decision to be averted, but in future the EU should make clear its intentions, and stick to them. It cannot shy away from its obligations at the last moment due to its own fears, leaving likely allies in the lurch. Such unreliability is a great way for global actors to lose trust, allies and influence.


[1] Georgi Gotev, “Von der Leyen locks horns with Macron over EU enlargement,” Euractiv, November 12, 2019.

[2] Viola Stefanello, “North Macedonia PM calls for snap election after EU membership talks blocked,” Euronews, October 19, 2019.

[3] Georgi Gotev, “Von der Leyen locks horns with Macron over EU enlargement,” Euractiv, November 12, 2019.

[4] Viola Stefanello, “North Macedonia PM calls for snap election after EU membership talks blocked,” Euronews, October 19, 2019.

[5] Alice Tidey et al., “’A grave historic error’: Juncker hits out as North Macedonia and Albania have EU bids blocked,” Euronews, October 18, 2019.

[6] Paul Stronski et al., “Russia’s game in the Balkans,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 6, 2019; Austin Doehler, “How China Challenges the EU in the Western Balkans,” Diplomat, September 25, 2019.

[7] Ben Doherty, “Experts dispel claims of China debt-trap diplomacy in Pacific but risks remain,” Guardian, October 20, 2019.

[8] Matthew Holroyd, “Western Balkan leaders plot their own ‘mini-Schengen’ zone,” Euronews, November 11, 2019.


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