SIM Report: Southern Europe, Issue 2

ALBANIA & NORTH MACEDONIA: EU decision to block formal accession talks increases stability risk, distrust towards the bloc likely to grow

Introduction

On 18 October the European Union (EU) decided against opening formal membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, a development that could escalate the risk of instability in a fragile region. 

EU membership bears wide-ranging implications for candidate countries 

Prior to establishing formal talks, a key part in the EU membership process which can take several years to complete, aspiring members are required to enact several reforms to ensure that government legislations are compliant and in sync with the bloc’s regulations. Reforms very often fall under the broad umbrella terms of economic policy, anti-corruption, and the rule of law. The talks were effectively blocked by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who advocates reforming the EU should be prioritised over expanding the bloc. Membership talks with Albania were also halted by Denmark and the Netherlands. Countries opposing the talks argued that more progress was needed in some areas, including immigration and fighting organised crime.

In a statement that underscored existing frictions among EU leaders over enlargement, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker described the move as a ‘historic mistake’. Both the European Commission and European Parliament supported the bids, a view also shared by the US government. 

Potential EU membership will further increase close economic ties between the bloc and both countries, whose exports would benefit from tariff-free access to other member states. The EU is the largest trading partner for countries in the Western Balkans; 80.6 per cent of exports from the region are destined for the EU, and 73.5 per cent of imports in the Western Balkans come from the EU. Membership will also help increase the integration of domestic companies into European supply chains.

Risk of social unrest, bilateral tensions likely to escalate over delay in negotiations  

Albania and North Macedonia have experienced successive and occasionally violent protests over domestic issues in recent months. For the leaders of both countries, the opening of accession talks would represent an important success story in two countries were EU membership enjoys widespread popular support.

In both countries, the promise of lucrative economic benefits associated with EU membership would help establish some measure of stability at a time of increased political volatility. For instance, in North Macedonia an overwhelming majority of people voted in favour of a name change agreement with neighbouring Greece in a 2018 referendum partly because the deal would ostensibly pave the way for EU membership. Indeed, Athens lifted its long-standing veto over North Macedonia’s bid to join the EU following the deal, known as the ‘Prespes Agreement’. In the run up to the referendum, thousands protested across the country, including the capital Skopje. In Albania, the initiation of negotiations with the EU would help alleviate some pressure on Prime Minister Edi Rama – the target of continual public protests led by opposition parties – who has been accused of corruption and having links to organised crime networks. It could also restore public confidence in the government, whose legitimacy was undermined when opposition parties boycotted local elections in June. The delay means that discontent towards the two ruling parties – the Partia Socialiste e Shqipërisë (PS) in Albania and the Socijaldemokratski Sojuz na Makedonija (SDSM) in North Macedonia – will continue.     

Shortly after the EU’s announcement, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev – who staked his political future on the ensuing benefits from the name change deal – agreed along with opposition party leaders to hold an early election scheduled for 12 April 2020. If Zaev loses the election to VMRO-DPMNE, the main opposition party which opposes the Prespes Agreement, this could in turn deteriorate relations with Greece.

EU membership delay will fuel distrust, likely lead to growing influence from China and Russia

While the short-term impact of the decision will be mainly felt in Albania and North Macedonia, repeated delays will have broader implications, fuelling political and public distrust towards the EU, diminishing the bloc’s influence in the wider region.

In the longer term, the development paves the way for more influence from China and Russia, two countries which have been gradually expanding their investments in the region, including in Albania and North Macedonia, focusing particularly on major infrastructure projects. This could in turn lead to a longer-term divergence – highlighted by a lack of progress or backsliding on reforms – between the two countries and the EU. 

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