Meeting of the General Affairs Council 19 November 2019; Photo: European Union

Fourth time’s a charm for North Macedonia and Albania, apparently. After the Prespa Agreement was signed in June 2018, there were expectations that, at least for North Macedonia, the positive decision on opening of EU accession talks could materialize just a few weeks later at the European Council meeting. It was delayed back then, again in June 2019 and, most infamously, in October 2019. Backlash that the final lack of decision caused, coupled with the proposal for a new methodology, as well as Commission’s updated reports on the two countries, finally lead to a green light of the Council earlier this week, expected to be confirmed by EU leaders later today.

“It is a very positive signal for a number of reasons beyond the two countries. First, it sends the message that the enlargement process continues and that, despite all the obstacles, there is enough support even in skeptical countries to keep it going. Even countries like France and the Netherlands have been able to agree to the process. Second, it emphasises merit as both countires have undergone difficult reforms in recent years. The credibility of the process is thus salvaged”, stresses Florian Bieber, Professor of Southeast Europe History and Politics at the University of Graz.

He adds another benefit – the two “frontrunner countries”, Montenegro and Serbia, now have more competition and this will increase the pressure on them to deliver. The former opened its accession negotiations in 2012, while the latter did it in 2014. Closing of the negotiating chapters have proven a significant challenge in both countries.

Bieber, the coordinator of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), believes that there is still a lot to be done in both North Macedonia and Albania as well, but that this decision rewards the reforms and incentivises them further. This assessment was seemingly confirmed just a day after the decision, when the Commission announced that Albania will have to show further progress in the field of elections and judiciary before its first intergovernmental conference, a condition set out by the German Parliament back in September.

“Furthermore, in terms of domestic politics, it also give a boost to those politicians that have promoted difficult reforms. In brief in terms of elections in North Macedonia, will certainly give a boost to the incumbent, although of course the general development of the COVID19 crisis will trump the decision in the short term”, Bieber points out.

The snap elections in North Macedonia, triggered exactly because of the lack of a positive decision in October 2019, were set to be held on 12 April, less than three weeks after the good news for the country, in addition to its NATO accession process, which is almost completed.

All of this further highlights the fact that the decision was made in extraordinary circumstances. Both the Ministers of European Affairs and EU Heads of State and Government are meeting via video conferences, and the whole continent now seems to be preoccupied with a single issue – how to slow down the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impact on the economy.

A decision amidst a pandemic

Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels and also a member of BiEPAG believes that, while the pandemic does divert attention from the decision, it might as well had made it easier.

“I do think that the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe, with all eyes on the COVID-19, diverted all attention from other issues which made it easier to take some decisions that could appear as politically damaging to the leaders in the member states. France held the first turn of its municipal elections on 15 March and the second turn (now postponed) was to take place on 22 March. It was widely expected that with that political hurdle out of the way a positive decision on North Macedonia and Albania would be made. There were expectations that this would happen but there was no certainty”, says Cvijić.

He points out that in October 2019 French President and government were facing a wave of protests around the announced pension reform and, in regular circumstances, a decision to postpone the opening once again was not entirely inconceivable.

Now that the decision has been made, Cvijić’s opinion as to what its expected effects will be is similar to Bieber’s- he strongly believes that it will act as an incentive for other countries in the region to accelerate the reforms.

“Opening the talks with Albania and North Macedonia should act as a catalyst pushing the frontrunner countries, Serbia and Montenegro, to work seriously and full heartedly towards the fulfillment of the criteria. In the frontrunner countries what we are experiencing in the last years, is democratic backsliding, a process opposite to the one necessary to bring them closer to EU membership. We need to see a decisive change in Serbia and Montenegro and a positive peer pressure coming from North Macedonia and Albania can help”, he says.

Bieber also opines that, while the decision is right now overshadowed by the pandemic, its importance will rise as the time goes by.

“Now, a lot will depend domestically on the response to the crisis and the legitimacy of the EU will depend on its ability to provide aid and include the region rather than exclude it. Still, in the long run, the importance of the decision will be come more noticeable and it send the clear message to the region that it is not excluded”, Bieber says.

He once again underlines that, right now, tangible gestures and acts by the EU in the midst of the crisis will matter as accession talks are of course mostly intangible to citizens, while medical supplies and other support is more visible.

European institutions have seemingly gotten to the same conclusion, as they are now taking several steps to include Western Balkans in their initiatives to fight the pandemic. However, China has already taken advantage of a somewhat slower European response, especially in Serbia, which will most certainly be a topic for consideration when the emergency winds down.

How long will be the wait for the next steps?

Of course, the accession negotiations have not been formally opened – this will take place after the negotiating positions for both countries are completed, adopted by the Council, and the first intergovernmental conferences are scheduled. The process might not be all that straightforward, evidenced by the case of Serbia. It took almost two and a half years from Council’s positive decision to opening of its first chapters, a fact highlighted by Srđan Cvijić.

“You are right to mention Serbia and I think unfortunately we should have something similar to that time perspective in mind. The European Council endorsed the Commission’s recommendation to open negotiations with Serbia in June 2013. The First intergovernmental conference was held in January 2014 and the first negotiating chapters were opened only in December 2015. In present political circumstances, I am not expecting a very different time line when it comes to North Macedonia and Albania. This would mean that North Macedonia, because of the lesser opposition from the EU member states, would have its intergovernmental conference sometime in September-October 2020 and that it would open the first chapters or clusters only some time in 2022. I sincerely hope that we would not wait that long because in 2022 the French President Macron will be seeking reelection and I don’t think such political environment is conducive to an impartial assessment of a candidate countries preparedness to further progress on its EU membership path”, Cvijić concludes.

Florian Bieber’s expectations are somewhat different – though he is cautious to formulate predictions at the current time, he believes that there are reasons to be optimistic about the process not lasting that long.

“It is hard to judge. Of course the COVID-19 might lead to some delays. On the other side, the Commission has been preparing for talks longer than with Serbia or Montenegro, considering that already in 2018, it recommend talks and prepared the negotiations. Thus, I would expect less of a delay or if so, only due to the pandemic rather than to the situation on the ground”, he emphasises.

Whenever the first intergovernmental conferences take place, it is hard to deny that this has been the most important step forward for the Western Balkans’ EU integration path in years. Supporters of their countries’ EU membership are right to hope that this will at least partially reinvigorate the process, though to what extent is a question for after the pandemic.