The future of the EU and enlargement, Albania and Macedonia at the crossroads


At the beginning of November last year, the EU refused, not because it did not meet the conditions imposed by Brussels for accession, but rather because of the internal situation in the EU, in which France and Germany were disputing the leadership of the union for the coming years. Both candidates, Albania and Macedonia, viewed with frustration how the efforts made to adapt their states to EU standards came to nothing from the opposition, from France to initiate talks with both countries and from the Netherlands, which only refused to initiate talks with Albania. Denmark and Spain, without opposing, also expressed their doubts about Albania's future.  

The Balkan candidates were victims of a bloc policy between a Eurosceptic and increasingly distant from NATO, France, and Germany, the dehumanised economic engine of the continent. The response of the European institutions was not positive for Macedonia and Albania. Kick to follow, and we shall see in June, as if it were an institute recovery, for the opening of negotiations, sending a clear message to the Western Balkans. We must wait. 

The EU is currently a giant with feet of clay, where many voices are raised calling for a new design of the system. France is advocating a comprehensive restructuring of the EU after Brexit, with a social rejection of around 30 per cent for immigration in France and 35 per cent for immigration within the EU, according to data from the spring 2019 Eurobarometer. France has set the most conditions for beginning talks with the two Balkan candidates, particularly those relating to suspending the talks and monitoring the pace at which the reforms are progressing.


The Franco-Albanian relationship, despite having historical records of mutual support and friendship, is currently not at its best. On the economic front, relations are cold and trade is moderate. On the political front, France's misgivings about the accession of new partners, and Albania in particular, are determined by French society's perception of the corruption that prevails in the Adriatic country. This, together with the rejection of immigration, forms an explosive combination for France's refusal to allow EU citizens with full rights but belonging to a country regarded as little more than a nest of drug traffickers-such is French public opinion's view of Albania-to move freely within the EU's borders.

In a Union that is becoming increasingly fragmented due to the SARS COV 2 crisis, in contrast to France, Germany again, or rather the German government, since once again German public opinion is largely opposed to the opening up of the EU, for the time being to new partners, especially the admission of Albania, a country that has become a regular emitter of migrants to Germany since 2015. Of the remaining candidate countries to join the Union, which belong to the Western Balkans, according to data from the Statistisches Bundesamt, the German national statistics institute, at the end of 2019 the census of residents in Germany did not reach half a million people from Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia

The ravages of the pandemic in Europe

France was until the beginning of the so-called second wave of the pandemic, with 209,640 people infected and 30,032 deaths from SARS COV 2, and a fatality rate of 14.33%, the fourth most affected country in Europe in relative terms according to July data from the UTN-FRCU. The first is Belgium, with 62,781 infections, 9,787 deaths and a lethality rate of 15.99%. The data for Germany are certainly better, 200,456 infected, 9,078 deaths and a fatality rate of 4.53%. The gap between the two continental giants is widening owing to the management of the pandemic and the perception of it by European citizens, which inevitably conditions continental reconstruction the day after the crisis. If this crisis has had a greater impact on some countries than on others, it is undoubtedly due to the irresponsible management that their respective governments have carried out, and as always Germany, the Netherlands and the countries that have opposed a cross-cutting EU economic reconstruction programme and question the Union's principle of solidarity.  They are not prepared to pay the price for the irresponsibility of others. It is a cultural thing.  

The initial division of the EU into two blocks, one with Spain and Italy, in which France was aligned, and the other with Germany, Finland, Denmark, Austria and above all the Netherlands, which are defending funds for reconstruction through credits from the ECB, refusing to issue bonds that would make socialisation possible in order to rebuild and strengthen the economies most affected by the pandemic, among all the EU members. This confrontation further deepens the differences of opinion on what the EU is and should be in the near future, among the Community partners.



The Netherlands, which is aligned with France as regards the admission of new partners, and, with a broad rejection of immigration and openness to the eastern EU countries, is currently the toughest partner, together with Austria, as regards the economic reforms that Brussels needs to address in the short term. This attitude is repugnant, in the words of the Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa, one of the great pan-European political values in a Union that is in its infancy. Together with Germany, which has opposed, and its economy is going along with, any economic reform, The Hague has formed a group of countries that are not willing to accept any reform. Germany bases its economy on a competitive manufacturing sector and on the exports of these manufactures; it is currently the third largest exporter in the world.

Exports and the free internal market were the driving force behind Germany's post-war reconstruction and acted as the economic engine in the construction of the EU. Integration into the single currency almost 20 years ago once again strengthened the German economy against those of its partners, who, prior to monetary union, were able to devalue their national currencies to compensate for the unequal trade balance with Germany.  In view of the prospect of losing economic weight and, consequently, political weight, Berlin has closed its doors to those states which see the need for a thorough reform that would unite the EU around a commitment to solidarity between states rather than around Germany's economic power. The EU is currently built around economic relations camouflaged by historical and cultural legacies, leaving solidarity and responsibility between states at this point in time merely altruistic.

At the beginning of May, the German Federal Constitutional Court declared the bond purchase programmes of the ECB (European Central Bank) to be unlawful. In practice, this ruling means that any decision to buy bonds or debt by the ECB will not be binding on Germany. What Germany claims is that any binding decision by bodies belonging to the EU, which are not autonomous, must first be ratified by the national parliaments. The worst thing about this ruling, which turns the efficiency of the Union's operating system upside down, is that it also orders that a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which validated the ECB's debt purchases, be disregarded, thereby placing each state's specific regulations above Community law.

In other words, if a Community rule conflicts with a national rule, we can simply ignore the Community rules. If the EU, in order to issue bonds for the reconstruction of the EU economies after a pandemic, needs the member states to raise their level of debt, the federal government only has to invoke the constitutional clause, Schwarze Null, to achieve a balanced federal budget, which limits government debt to 0.35 per cent of annual GDP, and which implies that the German states have to assume extraordinary powers, for example to make payments to reduce the amount of debt to the required limit. If, and only if, the federal government wants to.

The solidarity that is the basis of European construction. The proposal in May of a Franco-German plan, which would also contribute to the détente between blocs, to extend the community budget to create a common reconstruction fund of 500 billion euros, was strongly opposed by Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands, with the counter-proposal of creating a two-year emergency fund, based on credits requested by the countries in need, which, in addition, as in the Franco-German plan, should commit to a series of economic and social reforms, which include reforming the tax base, reducing the tax base for the digital economy, as well as implementing policies aimed at increasing investment in health, research, green policies and, again, the digital economy. 

Zoran Zaev

The patina of solidarity and social justice is provided by point 4.3 of the document which literally calls for solidarity, between people, generations, regions and countries, ensuring that equality will be at the heart of recovery. In the agreement reached at the end of July, it provides for an increase in the Community budget of just over ?1 trillion and accepts the EU Next Generation plan, reducing the recovery fund to ?672.5 billion divided into ?360 billion in appropriations and ?312.5 billion in direct aid. In return Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden will keep the correction mechanism intact. This agreement leaves the impression that once again, solidarity between the member states was the price to pay to get the agreement through, if the majority of the amounts that make up the reconstruction fund are made up of credits, not only do we fail to respect the principle of solidarity between states, but we also fall into the absurdity of having to return credits on amounts that the states themselves have contributed, i.e. to lend money to themselves.  

However, as we can see, the EU and the candidate countries are faced with the complex economic and cultural equation that Germany and many countries in Central and Northern Europe represent vis-à-vis the countries of the South and East of the continent. Hungary and Poland apart, are more interested in pursuing their own agendas than in the construction or future of the Union, and represent the exception, to the fundamental values on which the EU is founded. An exception, because these much-vaunted values required of candidates for accession, which have so far been one of the most convenient excuses for rejecting them, are a dead letter for some member states, such as those of the Visegrad Group. In Poland, the deterioration in the rule of law, as set out in articles 2 and 7 of the TEU (Treaty on European Union), has led to the drafting of a groundbreaking report approved by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

This report literally covers the deterioration in the functioning of the legislative and electoral system, the lack of independence of the judiciary and the rights of judges, and the lack of protection of fundamental rights. The conclusions of this report will be voted on during September in order to determine its final adoption by the Parliament. If finally adopted, it would imply the adoption of sanctions by Brussels against Poland. In Bulgaria, which does not belong to the Visegrad family, the government of the Europeanist Boyko Borisov has been facing street protests for two months against the plan to reform the structure of the political system and draft a new constitution.

This plan includes reducing the parliament from 240 to 120 deputies, giving greater political weight to the president, and proposals from the right and extreme right, such as the return to compulsory military service and those openly opposed to the TEU, establishing a new system of census suffrage based on labour qualifications, designed to avoid the vote of some minorities, for example the Roma, and the creation of reserve areas for the establishment of some of these groups, a measure which, in theory, goes against the fundamental values of the EU, and which in practice would deactivate the Turkish political minority, the third parliamentary force and key to forming a government in Bulgaria.  

The outlook for the candidates does not seem promising, as Brussels demands respect for the fundamental values of the EU from states wishing to join the European club, reforms to guarantee a state governed by the rule of law similar to those of the EU partners, a sustainable market economy and realignment in accordance with the EU's foreign policy. This is one of the most complicated points to determine when analysing the case in question, as, for Macedonia to a lesser extent and for Albania, it is going to involve moving away from the orbit of Ankara, the ally that has so far proved most reliable. However, it seems that nothing is going to change in the short term with respect to the two new accession candidates, which join Turkey (2005), Montenegro (2012) and Serbia (2014), at the bottom of the list of countries waiting to begin talks on joining the EU.

There is no date for starting talks, which in the social and economic scenario posed by the SARS COV 2 crisis and the resulting stage of instability indicates that we are talking about a very long-term process. The reconstruction of the EU, as we see it, is presented as a long and complex process, without a fully defined plan to strengthen the Union's economic structures and reduce the ideological gap between the member countries. According to a report at the end of April by the Jacques Delors Centre, 61% of Italian citizens and 41% of French citizens perceive that the EU has done nothing to help alleviate the consequences of the SARS COV 2 health crisis.  

The summit on 6 May again urged the candidate countries, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo, to carry out reforms aimed at strengthening the region's economic integration in order to bring the candidates' economies closer to the EU's single market system, by strengthening the Regional Economic Area (REA). The Commission undertook, without defining any dates, to present an economic and investment plan for the region aimed at stimulating local economies.  

According to the EU's own figures, a ?3.3 billion package was activated through the European Investment Bank for assistance to the Western Balkans to strengthen the various health systems. Following the request in April from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia, asking Brussels for authorisation to receive essential equipment to combat the pandemic, in the same way that the EU authorised Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, the Faroe Islands, Andorra, San Marino and the Vatican, the EU authorised the joint purchase and unrestricted transit of personal protective equipment and essential equipment, including testing and verification systems.

The EU's security agenda

Speaking of security, the EU is a long way from being able to develop its own defence system, though this aspect is less of a problem as most of the EU members are also NATO members, such as Turkey, Albania and Macedonia, which joined in March as the 30th member of the Atlantic alliance.  Security cooperation between the Western Balkan countries and the EU would focus on police cooperation and border control in order to contain the growing flows of migrants trying to reach the EU via the Balkan route. In 2018, Albania received an informal proposal from the EU to set up camps and infrastructure to receive refugees, thus preventing mass arrivals in Greece, Italy and Malta and unblocking the so-called Balkan route. This plan, a German initiative and supported by Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, envisaged the selection of migrants who could enter the EU and the deportation of those who could not enter EU territory. 

The agreement, which in the end did not materialise, was sweetened, in order to overcome Albanian reticence, with the vague promise of speeding up Albania's accession process by turning a blind eye to civil rights, strengthening the judicial system and providing, as in the Turkish case, succulent funding, in order to avoid management. Basically, an attempt was made to change the role that Turkey had been playing until then, and for which the price was being paid and still is being paid, by Albania, a NATO member, on European territory, a candidate for accession and perceived by Brussels as a more docile country.

The refugee crisis was a crisis that tested EU institutions, policies and principles. It was a long-term failure, in which Turkey was the main beneficiary, fishing in a river of turmoil, while the member states acted unilaterally in their own interests. Another significant aspect of security matters is the EU's interest, as stated in the document issued at the 6 May summit, in cooperation against threats, so-called hybrids and disinformation, from third countries that attempt to undermine the Europeanist outlook of the accession candidates. This point would require a more complex and interesting analysis of what these pages contain, but it seems very innocent of Brussels to consider that if its erratic policies in the region have given way to third parties in the Western Balkans and, accordingly, the positions of the various governments are giving way to sceptics or supporters of a rapprochement with these third parties, this is mainly due to the disinformation factor.

It seems clear that the EU's lack of interest, or excessive delay in beginning accession talks, may make it advisable for the Balkan candidates to apply for EU membership, in which Albania plays a very important political and economic role, just as Serbia does, also with its candidature on standby, as long as the Kosovo issue is not settled and the Mediterranean question is in full swing. In this respect, and always with Turkey on the horizon, at the May summit it was urged to align itself completely with the EU's position on foreign policy. Turkey is moving further and further away from Brussels, is committed to its own external action and is confronting the EU, not only over the issue of refugees, but also by sounding the drums of war in the eastern Mediterranean against France, Greece and Cyprus.