For all the smart talk in Brussels of a halt to EU enlargement — a victim of Brexit, rising nationalism and “expansion fatigue” — it is worth noting that, actually, it hasn’t halted at all. On the contrary, with respect to one set of accession applicants in the Western Balkans, the momentum is being maintained and may even be increasing.
This should become clear very soon. After an election later this month in Albania, and perhaps during an annual Western Balkans summit, scheduled for Trieste in July, there will almost certainly be a demand that accession negotiations with Tirana should begin this year.
It is not inevitable, but my guess is that the EU’s response will be positive, with regard at least to negotiations. I judge this based on the resources Brussels has committed to keeping all six of the Balkan applicants on the path to membership and to assisting whenever difficulties have arisen, as they have done most recently in Macedonia and Albania.
The Albanian case is instructive. For three months, the conservative Democratic Party occupied a huge tent outside the prime minister’s office in Tirana, boycotting the parliament, haranguing the government and demanding the resignation of prime minister Edi Rama of the Socialist party.
It was never clear why what was said in increasingly bombastic language inside the tent could not have been said in parliament. But it was perfectly clear that, by leaving their parliamentary seats vacant, the Democrats were blocking a critical reform of the judicial system, the last remaining big institutional reform required before negotiations could begin for Albania’s EU accession.
The parliamentary boycott led to the next logical, albeit completely irrational, step, a boycott of parliamentary elections. The DP appeared determined to deprive the next government of legitimacy, setting the stage for — what exactly? Repeatedly in rabble-rousing speeches to his supporters the DP leader declared a “New Republic”, suggesting revolutionary intent.
Brussels sprang into action. Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and lead enlargement negotiator Christian Danielsson led delegations to speak with the party leaders. MEPs were dispatched to mediate. Ultimately a settlement was reached. In the face of the DP’s flurry of demands, including direct participation in government through DP-appointed ministers, Mr Rama had just one key requirement. He insisted on judicial reform proceeding before the election. Without that, he said, EU talks could not proceed. The Democrats backed down.
In other words, Mr Rama was prepared to place everything on the table except EU accession. It is a measure of his strategic approach that he regarded that, not temporary power-sharing, as a deal breaker.
Mr Rama is emerging as one of the most sophisticated political leaders in Europe. An internationally acclaimed artist, he is also a former professional basketball player. Multilingual, he lived for a time in Paris where he gained his first recognition as an artist. In contrast to many politicians, Mr Rama does not peddle slogans.
Ideologically, he is of the centre-left — a “third way” social democrat, like Britain’s Tony Blair or possibly France’s new president Emmanuel Macron. A stout pro-European and Atlanticist, he has been outspoken in his warnings about Russian interventions in his own region and elsewhere.
Mr Rama views EU membership as the key to resolving Balkan instability and discord. He has urged Brussels to accelerate the process and bring the region in as swiftly as possible, partly to fend off current moves by Russia to extend its influence.
My sense, as a longstanding observer of the Balkan scene and former UN special representative in neighbouring Kosovo, is that there is strong sympathy for this view in Brussels, despite much-publicised reluctance.
Formally opening the negotiations does not necessarily mean a swift or inevitable conclusion, as witness the Turkish situation. But the EU needs to keep hopes alive among candidate nations if it wishes to retain its influence.
And just at the moment, with particularly EU-friendly leaders in Albania, Serbia and Macedonia, with Zoran Zaev newly installed as prime minister, there is a cadre of reformers available to lead the way.
Bernard Kouchner is a former French minister for foreign and European affairs, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and founder of Médecins du Monde.
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