The Irish Times view on EU enlargement: keep the door open

The EU should open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia

Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/ Reuters

Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/ Reuters

 

For states across Europe’s periphery, EU membership has been vital to economic modernisation and social progress. Each enlargement round, notwithstanding integration challenges, has also enhanced the union’s standing. Just as important is the power the EU exerts simply by dangling the prospect of membership. By insisting that applicants reform themselves in a range of areas, from the rule of law to human rights and governance, the EU has been the engine driving far-reaching changes across its neighbourhood, from southern Europe in the 1970s and 80s to the Baltic and Balkan states since the turn of the century.

But for that system of incentives to work, would-be members must believe the EU is serious about letting them in. And Albania and North Macedonia could be forgiven for thinking that it’s not. Last October, France joined Denmark and the Netherlands in blocking membership talks for both. French president Emmanuel Macron argued that the EU first needed to reform its policies and institutions before admitting new members. He also raised concerns about granting new members full EU rights from day one, with no way of addressing subsequent backsliding.

There is merit in both points. Ongoing rows with the authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary have given added force to the argument that the EU needs new ways to enforce observance of core values. But talks on admission for Albania and North Macedonia would take around a decade to complete; the idea that EU reforms cannot occur in parallel is such a stretch that Macron’s claim was widely interpreted as a sop to his far-right. With talks with Serbia and Montenegro moving at a glacial pace, it added to the impression that the EU has gone cold on its founding ideal – the creation of a continental community of solidarity and shared values.

The rejection was a blow to the two applicant states, whose leaders had overseen major changes at significant political cost. Macedonia had agreed a historic deal with Greece that resulted in it adopting its new name, North Macedonia. Albania had agreed to allow independent vetting of its judges and gave the Frontex border agency access to all its police operations. The EU veto on accession talks undermined pro-EU governments and emboldened nationalists in both states.

The European Commission has been working on a set of reforms to the enlargement procedures. It hopes they will be enough to persuade Macron to reverse his position at a summit in March. That would boost the pro-EU party of North Macedonia’s former prime minister Zoran Zaev, who faces a nationalist challenge in April elections. But it would also send an important signal to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova that the door remains open to states that accept the conditions of EU solidarity.

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