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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
Coronavirus end EU enlargement?

20 May 2020

Starting the conversation…

Tim LessCentre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, the EU has agreed to open negotiations on membership for Albania and North Macedonia. This follows a decision by Paris to lift its veto on the EU’s expansion into the Balkans in return for France’s European peers agreeing to an amended enlargement methodology which allows member states, and not only the Commission, to determine whether an applicant has met the standards for closing a negotiating chapter. It also elevates the importance of the ‘rule of law’ as an entry criterion for aspirant members.

So, does this augur a revival of enlargement after two years in which France and others have put the policy on hold? The short answer is No. The most which can be said is that France has made a symbolic concession that frees its president, Emmanuel Macron, from charges of bloody-mindedness. In reality, however, Albania, North Macedonia and other Balkan states are no closer to membership because Macron has also said any further enlargement depends on the EU making the changes it needs to overcome its myriad internal problems, including a fiscal union to buttress the shaky monetary union and a rationalisation of the EU’s bureaucratic, decentralised decision-making procedures. With the amended methodology, France now has a powerful mechanism for blocking enlargement until these changes are in place. 

In short, Macron has revived the French elite’s long-standing demand for ‘deepening’ the EU as the pre-condition for its ‘widening’. However, as the European response to the coronavirus crisis illustrates, the international solidarity which a deeper union would require to function is in woefully short supply. Indeed, with Italy in open rebellion, the Netherlands seceding in spirit and many in France now calling for ‘Frexit’, it now seems more likely the EU will contract – and perhaps even collapse – rather than ever enlarge.


Professor Julian Lindley-French, Senior Fellow, Institute of Statecraft, Director, Europa Analytica

The latest debate over the possible membership of Albania and North Macedonia is just that – a debate. Early enlargement was about the building of a new European power. Consequently, widening and deepening were one and same thing. In the wake of the Cold War, EU and NATO enlargement aligned in pursuit of a Europe whole and free. Today, enlargement is entering its third phase in which widening has become an extended form of strategic partnership in which the EU promises future membership but makes no commitment to delivering it. Enlargement is also expensive and, with the EU likely to be mired in post-COVID-19 public debt, any money will be very limited.

EU membership is as much about pain as it is about gain. This is something the Poles and Hungarians have at times balked at, preferring instead to see the EU as a mechanism for latter day German war reparations and source of ‘no questions asked’ funding for past historic wrongs. They have particularly balked at the idea that such monies have political strings attached concerning governance.

Enlargement has thus become a form of Association Agreement. As Turkey and Ukraine have found to their cost the commitment to future EU membership is, in Brussels parlance, always five years hence. Therefore, whilst President Macron may have conceded ground over the principle of future enlargement until the EU’s depth is agreed, its width is on hold. As such, the offer to Albania and North Macedonia is at best a symbolic EU down-payment on the future stability and security of the Western Balkans in the face of growing Russian interference. 

Therefore, given that both states have expressed a commitment to deeper Euro-Atlantic integration, NATO is likely to prove a much more open door for their ambitions.

Steven E. Meyer, National Security Program Chair at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School, Washington DC

Timothy Less’ analysis is spot on. At the least the EU is flailing around, trying to come up with at least a semi-normal, semi-rational way forward in opening the door for North Macedonia and Albania. At the worst, the emperor has no clothes. He continues to think that everything is alright and it is time to launch North Macedonia and Albania on the path of eventual permanent membership. The ultimate conclusion is well reasoned—the EU will either contract or collapse. All the signs are there.

There are, I think, three major overlapping, mutually reinforcing problems on the path not only for North Macedonia and Albania, but also for any other aspirants and, indeed, for the future of the EU itself. First, neither North Macedonia nor Albania is anywhere near ready to start down the EU path. Both are economic and political cripples. Their economies are the worst in Europe, crime and corruption plague them and the Albanian-Slav issue in North Macedonia is far from settled. Moreover, the new requirements generated by Paris potentially make it more difficult for new aspirants to start the journey as well as for those, such as Serbia, who already are working to close chapters.

Second, the EU is badly fractured. There is a palpable economic and political north-south spilt and an east-west split both of which are getting worse. Third, Europe is in the midst of an increasingly serious re-nationalization of politics that is eating away at the concept of EU unity which saw its heyday in the 1970s and 80s. The currents of discontent and even open rebellion are everywhere. Italy, Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Scandinavia are all manifesting their own iteration of deep, serious strain.