Intensification of relations with the region, economic support thorough French Development Agency, cooperation in the fight against organised crime and terrorism, the establishment of joint investigation teams – this is how France sees the future of its engagement in the region.
One day after the Western Balkans Summit in Berlin on 29 April, French President Emmanuel Macron again took an initiative and released French Strategy for Western Balkans.
“France wants to re-engage with the region, from which it has backed away somewhat since 2000”, stated Macron during the joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
This time set of proposals more concern candidate, and potential candidate, countries than the EU itself. Four areas of bilateral cooperation are set as a priority for French foreign politics in the region: economic development, justice, defense and security. However, much like Macron’s open letter in which he called for Europe’s renewal in March, potential impacts this document may have are interpreted in different ways.
“A clearer endorsement of the enlargement would have been desirable”, remarks Professor at the University of Graz and BiEPAG coordinator Florian Bieber.
He takes this lacking as a reflection of France’s deep reservation about enlargement at the moment.
Indeed, accepting new members to the Union is a considerably unpopular prospect in this country. One of the most recent examples was the debate between French MEP candidates, during which only two out of twelve supported the accession of Serbia.
The Strategy, therefore, is much more a result of internal politics of EU than France’s support for this concrete policy, explains Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute and BiEPAG member Srđan Cvijić.
“It is to be read as a positive response from Paris to repeated demands from Berlin for France to be more actively involved in the region”, he says.
He reminds that the UK’s disengagement from the European policies towards the region, as well as the political change in Italy that limited its ability to act as a promoter of change in the Western Balkans, has left Germany to steer enlargement on its own.
This is why France decided to re-engage, and this should be welcomed, says Cvijić.
According to him, it is not entirely true that the Strategy does not focus on the enlargement – it just does it indirectly.
“A more prudent narrative on enlargement in the Strategy is due to internal political considerations ahead of the elections for the European Parliament and a more generally President Macron’s desire to achieve deepening of the Union before further widening”, Cvijic explains.
However, this is exactly why some believe that the Strategy will not move the region significantly closer to EU membership. Among them is Research Associate at the European Institute of LSE and BiEPAG member Tena Prelec.
“This level of commitment certainly falls short of giving renewed impetus to the Western Balkans’ EU perspective”, says Prelec.
She agrees that France, together with the Netherlands, is the naysayer when it comes to the enlargement. Macron’s careful avoidance of expressing any open support to the enlargement should thus, according to her, be seen as his intention to keep the domestic audience happy.
The criticism of the document does not stop here. Florian Bieber also detects some of its structural weaknesses, which, according to him, include incoherency and lack of more details.
“The Strategy is not really a strategy, but a set of measures France seeks to undertake outside the framework of enlargement”, Biber explains.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the initiative is simply about keeping the status quo.
“While not using the word enlargement, which is unfortunate, it acknowledges this by defining it in addition to the EU activities, which are after all enlargement policies”, Biber says, adding that France’s decision to talk about European rapprochement is in and of itself a sign that some things may change.
Biber also points out that the third measure of the Strategy, which includes support to Regional Youth Cooperation Office and increased engagement of French Development Agency in the region, clearly outlines that the regional approach of France is to complement the activities of the EU.
“The Strategy is clearly not a substitute for enlargement”, concludes Bieber. Whether it will enhance the process in any way remains to be seen.
A clearer picture of President Macron’s attitude towards the region will probably emerge after the campaign for European elections is over and opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia draws nearer. With the next Western Balkan Summit also being scheduled for the beginning of July in Paris followed by the annual Berlin Process meeting in Poznan, it seems that the seriousness of French commitment will soon enough be put on a test.