PARIS – A majority of people in France are opposed to the Western Balkan countries joining the EU, but for most this issue is not a salient one and attitudes are not firmly held, shows the new research on French public opinion on EU membership of the Western Balkans „It’s the EU, Not Western Balkan Enlargement” conducted by the Open Society European Policy Institute.
The research found that approval or disapproval of Western Balkan enlargement is most closely associated with overall evaluations of the state of the EU, feelings of political control, and to an extent with attitudes towards previous rounds of EU enlargement, rather than with factual knowledge of the Western Balkans or explicit worries concerning them.
Srđan Cvijić, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and one of the authors of the publication said for EWB that given that opposition to enlargement to the Western Balkans is exclusively a manifestation of frustration with the EU among the vast majority of French people, and that the fact whether the six Western Balkan countries will join the EU or not is not too important, we have a situation that is ungrateful on the one hand, and extremely positive on the other.
“Figuratively speaking, when it comes to public opinion, even if you propagate enlargement from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the effect will be small because the essence of the problem is not in the candidate countries from the Balkans. On the other hand, the essence is that this issue is politically irrelevant to the French. What is needed is for French politicians to work on rebuilding trust in the EU, and not, as in the past, to place all the responsibility for internal political problems on the EU and Brussels”, said Cvijić.
He added that the Western Balkans, of course, can and should be part of this broader political process of restoring confidence in the EU.
“The first positive steps are already visible through the preparations for the organization of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Involving citizens and politicians from the Western Balkans in this process as equal partners would have a positive effect on the general return of confidence in the EU and its institutions, and thus on enlargement policy”, Cvijić explains.
The research found that three in four people in France believe that it would not affect their lives much or at all if Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia joined the EU.
“Given the low salience of the issue amongst the French electorate, it is unlikely that a continuation of the Western Balkan enlargement process would have a significant impact on French internal politics in general, and the electoral process in particular. Fears that the French government might be penalised by the electorate for moving forward with enlargement do not find a basis in this research,” reads the report.
Cvijić highlights that it is extremely positive for the candidate countries from the Balkans, that only 8% of French people think that the membership of the Western Balkan countries would have serious consequences for their lives, which means that the current practice of opposing enlargement as a way to collect political points at home is completely wrong.
“Most importantly, this study shows that French support for the progress of the Western Balkan countries towards EU membership would have no consequences for electoral policy in France. If we take as an example the opening of the first chapters with North Macedonia and Albania, if this happens and France does not oppose the opening, or even openly supports it, such a decision, contrary to popular opinion in the ruling majority in France, would have no effect on presidential elections scheduled for April 2022”, underlines Cvijić.
It was stated in the report that when it comes to EU enlargement, France is not the only country with a sceptical public, but it is one of the countries with the highest rates of popular disapproval.
“Research participants, regardless of attitude and salience profile, acknowledged, for example, economic disparities in the union, potential labour migration and its impact on France’s economy, and problems with the democratic stability of countries in the Western Balkans and the EU as a whole”, reads the report.
It was added that across the spectrum of opinions in France, there is a sense that EU enlargement in the Western Balkans has more advantages for countries in the region than for the EU and its current member states, in terms of their economic opportunities, democratic development, and overall stability in the light of past tensions and conflict.
“In particular, the potential loss of jobs in France was a major and often personal concern, with some participants directly relating it to worries about their own financial situation. In contrast to economic concerns, cultural worries do not seem to be a prominent reason for opposing the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU,” it was stated in the report.
However, Cvijić adds that almost all participants in the focus groups (even among those with strong negative attitudes) expressed the opinion that the membership of the Western Balkans in the EU, in geopolitical terms, would strengthen the region, France and the whole of Europe.
“Attitudes towards the membership of the Western Balkan countries in the Union, in 43% of respondents changed at the time when we confronted them with geographical maps of Europe and the region”, Cvijić concluded.