Macron Wants to Slam the Door on EU Expansion

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The French government has made it clear what President Emmanuel Macron meant by a reform of the European Union accession process, which he sees as a prerequisite to the bloc’s further enlargement. The proposed process wouldn’t be much of an improvement on the current one; rather, Macron appears to be trying to drown the issue of further EU enlargement in bureaucratic objections.

That’s a strategic mistake.

The current process requires EU candidate nations to accept and implement European rules in 35 areas, proving their adherence to democracy and the rule of law as well as their ability to function as market economies. It doesn’t matter in what areas a country will start implementing the changes. Progress in all 35 is regularly assessed and a candidate country is told where it’s been found still lacking. It’s a pretty clearly defined, well-tested process with the big prize, EU membership, coming at the very end. 

Over the weekend, the European edition of Politico published a French “non-paper,” or unofficial document for other EU member states’ consideration, containing the enlargement reform proposals. It advocates changing the current process in line with four principles: Making it more gradual, imposing clear and easily verifiable conditions for going from one accession stage to the next, linking the passage of each test with tangible economic benefits, and introducing the threat that the process can be reversed.

On paper, this looks like meaningful change. The French, it seems, would introduce several membership levels, each with its own rewards in the form of participation in various EU programs, and joining the borderless common market as a full member would be the final stage.

But in practice, the current process isn’t all that different. It’s reversible until countries are accepted as members, the accession criteria are clear, and the EU has the power to cut or increase benefits to prospective members at any point. All the countries in the Balkans the EU eventually may take in — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — have so-called stabilization and association agreements with the bloc. These regulate the gradual creation of free-trade areas. Specific EU programs are open to these countries, even those with which membership talks haven’t been officially opened. 

And as for reversibility, the examples of Hungary and Poland show that states can cast aside certain EU principles once they’re full members of the bloc — when it’s too late even to contemplate expelling them.

If Macron wants the EU to keep expanding, there’s no reason for him to demand the changes proposed in the document before the bloc opens talks with North Macedonia and Albania. If offered a specific accession timeline during the talks, these countries probably would have no objection. In fact, after meeting with Macron last week, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski tweeted he had nothing against an “altered methodology for EU accession talks which makes for a more thorough accession process.”

And yet, according to the document, France wants the European Commission to make a proposal in line with its ideas by January 2020. That’s hardly feasible, given that the Commission is absorbed with a transfer of power to new President Ursula von der Leyen and a new set of commissioners. The enlargement portfolio has been promised to Hungary, and its holder, Oliver Varhelyi, was only approved by the European Parliament on Monday.

If other European leaders agree with Macron’s proposal and the buck is passed to Varhelyi and von der Leyen, whatever they produce will come back to the national leaders to be kicked around. The longer that goes on, the happier Macron will be: French voters oppose enlargement. 

This kind of behavior on the part of the EU, though, would only be possible if the Balkan nations could obediently tread water forever as they wait for the Dutch, the French, the Germans and the Nordics to embrace them as fellow Europeans. The consensus among researchers who have studied the EU accession process is that institutional changes in new member states mostly have occurred for the sake of membership in the club, not because local elites actually saw European rules as especially wise or beneficial. That means, as Asya Zhelyazkova of Erasmus University Rotterdam and her collaborators wrote last year, that the change depends on the credibility of the accession promise, and that’s exactly what Macron is undermining.

The political elites of the Balkan countries that Macron is freezing out all contain elements not enamored with the EU. The current level of cooperation with the bloc is enough for them to get rich, and it doesn’t interfere with the region’s large informal economies. In fact, these countries’ wealth is growing no slower than that of the most recently accepted EU members.

Macron Wants to Slam the Door on EU Expansion

What the EU risks getting if it keeps pushing the aspiring members away is a neighborhood that serves as a backdoor for smugglers, people traffickers and every other kind of mob, run by embittered nationalist governments. Local conflicts that could involve North Atlantic Treaty Organization members such as Albania and Montenegro aren’t out of the question. 

What does the EU, and France in particular, get in return for increasing these risks? Certainly not what the anti-immigrant voters expect. The potential EU members’ workforces are already decimated by emigration, mainly to the EU. In Albania, the number of people who emigrated between 1990 and 2017 makes up about 40% of the current population, in Bosnia and Herzegovina almost 50%, in Montenegro and North Macedonia more than a quarter.

Resistance in France and other Western European countries to EU enlargement is unreasonable, and instead of yielding to voters’ fears, responsible leaders ought to explain why expansion makes sense: Among other things, it’ll make the EU’s external borders more secure. Macron is setting a bad example with his unnecessary reform proposal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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