BELGRADE – France is a strong supporter of the EU integrations of the Western Balkans, but the region is not convinced that it will do much to change the status quo in the following period, it was stated at the online conference “France and the Western Balkans’ EU membership”, organized by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy on Friday.
With France due to hold the presidency of the European Council in the first half of 2022, and with both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, the upcoming months may be the pivotal moment to revisit and reconstruct the French role in the EU integration process of the Western Balkans.
His Excellency Jean-Louis Falconi, the Ambassador of France to Serbia, explains that France has always been a strong supporter of the Western Balkans’ EU integration.
The ambassador notes that the EU membership of the Western Balkans was firstly promised at the Zagreb Summit in 2000, and later at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, when it was stated that the Western Balkans belongs to the EU. He says that France supports the EU perspective of the Western Balkan and that this is not some diplomatic promise.
“This promise has not been made to any other region. France has been fighting very hard not to make a similar promise to any other region. The position of France has been very clear on this matter. We intend to fulfil this sincere promise,” the ambassador says.
However, he adds, this means that both sides need to put some effort.
“It is not a very fair negotiation, and we can say that it is not a negotiation – if you want to get into the EU, some requirements need to be fulfilled. The dynamic starts from a deliberate political will of the parties to start negotiations,” the ambassador explains.
In addition to this, perception also plays a crucial role in the EU integration process.
The question is – what are the views of the French public regarding the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, and how do they influence the position of the official Paris?
Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst with the Open Society European Policy Institute, and a member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), explains that 22% of people in France are opposed to the Western Balkan countries joining the EU and for them, this represents an important issue.
Those results were presented in the recent research “It’s the EU, not Western Balkan enlargement… French public opinion on EU membership of the Western Balkans”, conducted by the Open Society European Policy Institute.
Cvijić points out that it is important to mention that less than a third of the respondents said that the addition of the Western Balkan countries to the EU would affect their lives a lot or at least somewhat, and almost half changed their views on the issue, depending on whether they were asked about the region in general or specific countries.
“This shows that for most people in France, the EU enlargement does not have great salience and that views on the topic are not firmly held,” Cvijić says.
Some of the reasons for those attitudes can be found in the little knowledge on the Western Balkans, says Cvijić, adding that contrary to widely shared concerns, there are few advantages that people accept as potential benefits regardless of their attitudes towards EU enlargement in the Western Balkans.
“Across all focus groups, participants recognised that the integration of the countries in the Western Balkans into the EU would bring geopolitical advantages – especially so after seeing the geographic position of the countries on a map vis-à-vis the EU’s current member states,” explains Cvijić.
He believes that, if the political strategy of the president and his party was and is defensive, so as not to lose votes because of the enlargement, there is no political sense to block the candidate countries all along their way towards the EU membership.
But what role does the internal French politics play in defining the French position towards the EU enlargement, and can the 2022 elections change the current negative discourse surrounding this topic?
Sébastien Gricourt, Director of the Observatoire des Balkans for the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, says that it is a mistake to believe that the issue of enlargement lays with the public opinion, but it is a political issue that needs resolving.
“By reviving the outdated debate of enlargement during Sofia Summit in 2018, with emphasis on enlargement and deepening, Macron was attempting to neutralize any occurrence of that question into the national debate,” he says, adding that the president was guided by some misperceptions of not being able to control this debate and that he will lose support to the right-wing electoral rate.
“To ensure votes from the right, centrist French politicians are not willing to open the topic of further enlargement of the EU,” says Gricourt.
Loïc Tregoures, PhD in Political Science and Balkans specialist, believes that France played a negative role in the enlargement process over the last three years.
“In France, there is this pro-EU argument to be against enlargement. This is probably what president Macron thinks, which is why the new methodology is not enough per se, although we do not know how it will be implemented. It can only work if everyone plays fair – candidates but also all the members,” he says.
Reminding of Croatia’s accession to the EU, he says that no one could say that the political, social, financial, or demographic balance in the EU changed by an inch after Croatia integrated and that the same would work for Montenegro or North Macedonia.
“As far as public opinion is concerned – it is true that Macron would not lose one vote by opening negotiations with Albania or North Macedonia, but the fact that they believed the opposite despite every evidence, matters,” Tregoures.
From the regional perspective, what is the main reasoning for French rejection of any substantial progress towards the EU integration in recent years and how does President Macron’s proposition on reforming the enlargement mechanism affect the membership aspirations of the Balkans’ countries?
Zoran Nechev, Head of the Center for EU integration of the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” and a member of BiEPAG, says that he wants to believe in everything that the French government is saying, but the trust is essential.
“If we want to have progression in the process, trust is essential. We have were told to resolve the issue with Greece, and when that happens we can start negotiations. When it was finally resolved, we did not open the negotiations,” he reminds.
Commenting on the new methodology, Nechev explains that the French government wanted to make the process more credible and that it has pushed hard for this, but the problem lies in the political will.
“We have not seen any strong push from France to start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, and we heard statements that it is in the French interest to see the Western Balkans in the EU. Is this status quo what the French are looking for? If you are not satisfied with the situation you will do something to change it. What France did to change this?” he asks.
With this agrees Alba Çela, Executive Director and Head of the European Program at the Albanian Institute for International Studies, and explains that Albania is sharing the disappointment with North Macedonia.
When it comes to perception and image, she says that the dominant perception in Albania is that France and the Netherlands are against the enlargement and accession of Albania.
However, she explains that there are differences between those two countries, adding that the role perception plays in the enlargement process is important.
“The Netherlands is very much engaged by monitoring the reforms, making declarations and supporting a lot of projects, and it is perceived as an opponent that is engaged, while the French position is less clear,” Çela says.
What can we do to change this, she asks.
“We were given the message that we have a new methodology. However, we are still stuck in the same status quo of not opening the accession negotiations,” says Çela.
When it comes to Montenegro’s accession process, Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network and a member of BiEPAG, says that there is also a dissatisfaction within the civil society in Montenegro, adding that Montenegro has been trying to move in the EU integration process for almost 9 years.
“The message that was sent to Albania and North Macedonia during the last year is for the whole Western Balkans and not just for those two countries,” Marović says, adding that she does not expect any major developments on the EU’s agenda on the enlargement in 2021 and that the same applies for the next year.
“The very reason for it is that France is taking over the EU’s presidency,” says Marović.
Vuk Vuksanović, a researcher of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, says that he is not expecting that the French foreign policy in the Balkans will produce any game-changing effect.
“I am not quite sure that France is interested in having the hands-on approach in the Balkans for 24/7, and that despite good intentions, I am not sure that Macron nor people around him are considering the Balkans as a foreign policy priority,” he concludes.