TIRANA – While the Western Balkans is still strongly pro-EU, the majority of the region is increasingly feeling the frustration due to the longevity of the process. One of the main EU Member States opposed to enlargement is France, but this has less to do with the WB countries themselves, concluded a webinar on the French role in the EU integration process of the Western Balkans organized by the Open Society Foundation for Albania.
A seemingly endless path towards Union membership has become even more dubious in recent years, especially after October 2019 when some EU member states blocked the opening of the EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The voice of the official Paris was among the strongest in blocking the two countries from moving forward with their membership bids, and President Macron has unequivocally rejected the idea of the EU enlargement in the foreseeable future, reads a press release.
Opening the panel, Andi Dobrushi, Executive Director of OSFA, highlighted that public opinion in the region continues to be overwhelmingly in favor of EU membership – with an average approval of 82.5%. Approval rates are as high as 95% in Kosovo and 90% in Albania. Even in the most skeptic in the region, Serbia, approval ranges to 60%-65%. However, dissatisfaction with the pace of the process is growing, and the long protraction is starting to generate fatigue in the region as well with 21% of the population (region-wide) believing that their countries will never join the EU. Furthermore, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic at the global level, combined with domestic socio-economic and politic realities, have given room to a year-long competition of key global actors for power and influence in the region. These dynamics risk pushing the Western Balkans into instability. In this context, the anchoring and stabilizing influence of the EU becomes crucial.
Addressing the new methodology for enlargement, Her Excellency Elisabeth Barsacq, Ambassador of France to Albania, stated that its purpose was not to block enlargement, but rather to reflect on the vision of EU in the future.
The Ambassador also elaborated on some of the potential reasons for enlargement skepticism and fatigue among French citizens, listing their perception of the Western Balkans as a conflict area, lack of information on the culture and geography of the region, and lack of a public pledge from the Western Balkans countries explaining why they would like to join the EU.
Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst with the Open Society European Policy Institute, presented the findings of study “It’s the EU, Not Western Balkan Enlargement…French public opinion on the EU membership of the Western Balkans”. Contextualizing what motivated the study, he pointed out that France’s opposition to opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019 seemingly stemmed from the fear of some officials that supporting enlargement would hurt their chances in the European elections, which suggested that the question of Western Balkans enlargement had become more politicized.
This lead a team of researchers to investigating attitudes of French citizens on the issue – going beyond generalized surveys asking whether the respondent is in favor or against enlargement. The study found that, overall, the issue has low salience for the French public opinion. Only 22% of the respondents disapproved of the Western Balkans EU accession and felt that issue was important, 53% of the respondents said that the possible accession of the Western Balkans would not affect their lives much.
These findings indicate that supporting – or simply not blocking – enlargement would not penalize French political actors. On the contrary, it would serve them to strengthen their prestige vis-à-vis other member states that are positive of enlargement.
Building on these findings, Yves Bertoncini, EU Affairs Expert and Professor of European issues, believed that France’s reticence towards enlargement has to do with its vision of the EU and its EU skepticism, as well as its internal politics. France’s fatigue with enlargement matches its frustration with the EU deepening.
To dispel skepticism, the Western Balkans too need to work not only on the diplomatic and technocratic aspects of accession talks, but also in delivering real impact from the membership-related reforms and improving the image of the individual countries.
Natasha Wunsch, Assistant Professor of Political Science/European Integration at Sciences Po, echoed Bertoncini’s argument on France’s concern with the trade-off between widening vs. deepening the EU, and its preference of the latter. This has translated into an emphasis on ‘controlled enlargement’ that requires a rigorous evaluation of candidate countries’ preparedness for membership. The Western Balkans have borne the brunt of this heightened emphasis on conditionality and compliance. This is particularly true with the new enlargement methodology that foresees the reversibility of negotiations should candidate countries fall back on their reform commitments.