Jean-Claude Piris / Nov 2019
Most people criticise Emmanuel Macron for refusing to open immediately the EU enlargement procedure with Albania and North Macedonia. Macron said that the Western Balkans will become part of the European family when the day is right; but not too early if it is at the price of seriously damaging the EU. Macron believes in a strong EU, which should become a major actor in the world, defending its values and the rule of law. To enlarge the EU while both sides are not yet ready would make it difficult.
The EU was progressively enlarged to 28 members without adapting its institutions and decision-making, conceived for six. The current enlargement process is mostly a technocratic/legalistic and lengthy exercise to get the candidate countries to adapt their domestic law by integrating the huge acquis communautaire. What is at stake is much more than that. The EU should check adequately if the stability and feasibility of the commitments of its future members will allow the EU values and the rule of law to be preserved, as well as the capacity of the EU to make decisions.
The EU is forgetting the 1993 Copenhagen enlargement criteria. This is because the temptation to use the EU as a foreign policy tool is prevailing. The idea is that enlarging quickly to several Balkan countries would be positive because it would stabilise the region. But it is simplistic to think that doing that without changing EU decision-making would not have the major effect of weakening the EU. Why? Because the EU institutions and decision-making are ill-adapted to a larger membership. The fact that candidate countries are small is irrelevant. Too many Commissioners and too much distortion in the democratic representation of citizens in the Parliament will not be helpful. As EU institutions and bodies already have too many members, making quick decisions will hardly be possible. The European Council and the Council already have difficulties in making decisions, given that all important EU decisions require unanimity, common agreement or consensus - procedures which are ineffective and undemocratic, as a country representing less than 0,1 % of EU citizens can block a decision.
This is the case regarding all major decisions: EU Treaty revisions, EU’s own resources and the multi-annual budget, tax matters, foreign policy and external security, judicial and police cooperation and internal security, and even for all the most important issues concerning social, environment, energy and climate change policies. Thus, as now, each of its 28 members has a veto on all important decisions, the EU is not as efficient as it should be, either for its internal development or as an actor in the world.
Let us face the truth: to enlarge the EU without strengthening it would have major foreign policy effects. It would make it unable to become a major world actor, except as a trading bloc and for the attraction of its single market. Any member can currently reject the adoption of any foreign policy decision or statement. In the Maastricht Treaty, a quarter of a century ago, the member states decided that "The Union shall define and implement a common foreign and security policy covering all areas of foreign and security policy". These promises were not supported by the necessary means . Despite the establishment of the External Action Service and the post of High Representative ten years ago, is there such thing as an EU foreign policy today ?
Adding a number of new members will not help. Besides, nobody knows where the EU’s Eastern border will end after the six Balkans countries.
Given that situation, which options are available to welcome the Balkans in the European family? Should the EU accept more differentiation and several tiers? Should some candidates become members of new entities, perhaps based on the EEA model, or on other tailor-made models still to be invented? Should some EU members create an "avant-garde" and then question the international law principle of equality « one State, one vote, one veto », first in the field of some aspects of defence (excluding territorial defence)? How about a European Security Council with the UK, as suggested by Macron ?
Given the rising power of China, the foreign policy of Russia, the isolationism of the US, one may hope that the EU, despite the UK’s exit, will become an autonomous and major power, able to defend its values and interests in the world. Otherwise, if it enlarges without reforms, it will be on a slow path towards a dilution as a mere trading bloc.
This would be a major foreign policy decision indeed, because a weak EU will not be able to guarantee the stability of the Balkans.