Some decisions of real consequence for the Western Balkans may finally be addressed now that the European elections are over. The release of the European Commission’s annual country reports on the region was delayed until after the elections so as not to stir populist sentiment on the touchy issue of enlargement ahead of the vote. With the reports now out, apprehension bordering on panic is beginning to set in in some capitals.
All eyes are on North Macedonia. The country signed the historic Prespa Agreement with Greece last summer, adding ‘North’ to its name and settling the longstanding dispute over ownership of the name (and associated history) of Macedonia. As a reward, the European Commission has recommended that the EU immediately start membership talks with Skopje.
But individual EU member states are not ‘speaking with the same voice’ on the issue of enlargement, and North Macedonia’s membership talks have controversially been linked with Albania’s. Reportedly, this is not a move that Merkel’s CDU supports, while France has been particularly reticent about enlargement per se. EU member states were expected to discuss the opening of negotiations with North Macedonia at a meeting in Luxembourg later in June, but Paris and Berlin have postponed that discussion to September.
The EU’s foot dragging
In the meantime, leaders in Skopje and their foreign supporters have warned that the EU’s failure to reward North Macedonia for its historic compromise with Athens could be catastrophic. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has said he will resign if the EU refuses to open negotiations. He has warned that early elections are also a possibility. Some analysts predict failure to move forward with membership talks will mean rising euroscepticism not only in North Macedonia but across the Balkans, saying that the country could fall prey to other, more malign foreign influences as a result.
Delaying a decision on North Macedonia’s future in the EU could carry other consequences as well. The conservative New Democracy party (ND) beat the ruling Syriza in the EP election in Greece, prompting then prime minister Alexis Tsipras – who ratified the Prespa Agreement with Zaev – to call early elections for 7 July. New Democracy opposes the Prespa Agreement. If Zaev calls early elections too, there is a very remote possibility that the entire Prespa Agreement could be imperilled. Even if such a scenario does not materialize, the EU’s foot dragging and perceived political recklessness with the region mean its credibility will be dealt a blow.
The Kosovo card
The European Commission’s report on Serbia was far more critical than in previous years. It emphasized the opposition’s ongoing boycott of parliament, which began in February. Major opposition parties have said that they will not return to parliament until the country has a free media and can hold free and fair elections. President Aleksandar Vucic’s inability to persuade the opposition to return to parliament for nearly six months has frustrated European leaders. It demonstrates that Vučić is no longer in control of one of the major institutions of government, rendering parliamentary sessions essentially useless.
A few weeks ago, a special session on Kosovo was called in parliament – the first such session in six years. Vučić said what his increasingly frustrated backers in the EU wanted to hear: that Kosovo was lost, that compromise meant victory, not defeat. But with the opposition boycott, it amounted to little more than political theatre for a foreign audience. To bring the opposition back to parliament, Vučić will be inclined to use all means at his disposal, including political blackmail. Meanwhile, he will likely continue playing the Kosovo card with European leaders, dangling the possibility of an imminent solution, or fearmongering about unrest that only he can control, for as long as it keeps him in power.
Rule of law vs spheres of influence
In neighbouring Montenegro, not much looks poised to change. The same man, Milo Đukanović, has been in power for 30 years. The European Commission’s report highlighted the country’s glaring rule of law issues. Đukanović long ago learned to convince his Western partners that they should overlook these problems and offer Montenegro membership in various institutions to prevent other foreign actors, especially Russia, from gaining a stronger foothold in the country. How long this message will continue to resonate with the EU, and at what expense, remains to be seen.
The outcome of the European elections will likely mean more of the same for the Balkans. One celebrated takeaway from the elections was high voter turnout. But high turnout does not necessarily mean greater European unity. Voters supported parties representing radically divergent visions for the future of the EU. And as long as EU member states remain divided on enlargement, the EU’s internal disunity will keep the Western Balkans in limbo.