Lake Ohrid. Photo: Kristof Bender / ESI

Start EU accession talks with North Macedonia

Keep your word. Strengthen reformers

None of the West Balkan countries currently meets the criteria for EU accession. None of them will join without huge efforts to strengthen their democratic and judicial institutions. None of them will be prepared to join anytime soon. Yet, there are strong arguments for all EU member states to support the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible.

ESI report: Hamster in the Wheel - Credibility and EU Balkan policy (15 January 2020)

When the European Council rejected the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in October 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that before opening negotiations "we need to reform our membership procedures." He has a point. ESI proposed concrete reform steps in the recently published report Hamster in the Wheel.

However, the veto punished the two West Balkan countries that worked hardest in the last years. There are strong arguments to start accession negotiations, especially for North Macedonia.

First, the EU needs to keep its word to leaders who reach out to neighbours and minorities at home in a true spirit of reconciliation. In summer 2017 North Macedonia concluded a friendship treaty with Bulgaria and in summer 2018 it reached the Prespa Agreement with Greece. In January 2019 Albanian became the second official language of the country. According to the European Commission North Macedonia has also made more reform progress in the last year than the two front-runners Montenegro and Serbia. If the EU now lets down the Western Balkan's most pro-European government, why should anyone else in the Western Balkans take such political risks in the future? Anti-European forces would rejoice all over the region for being able to (rightfully) call the EU an insincere cheat.

Second, North Macedonia is as advanced in its reforms as the front runners in the process. Comparing the latest assessments of the European Commission from May 2019, North Macedonia is doing as well as Montenegro and Serbia. The argument that "North Macedonia is not ready to start accession talks" is untenable.

Third, even once accession negotiations started, the question of North Macedonia becoming a member will not turn up for many years. The times when the start of negotiations automatically led to accession are long gone. Serbia has started negotiations in 2014, Montenegro in 2012. Both are still far from joining. Turkey has started in 2005 – 14 years ago – and is further from joining than at the beginning.

Supporting accession negotiations with North Macedonia now means to strengthen the EU's influence in the Western Balkans; to strengthen reformers in North Macedonia and the whole region; to weaken those anti-European forces that claim that the EU cannot be trusted, that the vision of a prosperous and stable future in the EU is an illusion and that every nation needs to fend for itself.

The EU and all member states must maintain the prospect of a European future for West Balkan reformers. Starting accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, ideally combined with a serious reform of the accession process, means providing credibility to this prospect, at very low costs.