“Albania now has nothing to lose from pursuing the alternative goal of national unification.”- Timothy Less
Both President of the European Council, Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, both expressed their disappointment that the European Council (18 October) could not agree on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Juncker described it as a historic mistake, while President Tusk said that while both countries were ready to start talks, the EU member states were not. Tusk also said that in his opinion it was a mistake.
This confirms what has been clear for a long time – that the process of enlargement is over, and that the Balkans are not going to join the EU.
In truth, key states in the EU, most notably France, never really wanted the EU to enlarge to the east, which confers disproportionate benefits to Germany, thereby upsetting the balance of power between Paris and Berlin while weakening the cohesion of the EU as a whole. From France’s point of view, that undermines the whole point of European integration, namely, to prevent war with Germany and provide a platform for amplifying French power.
For as long as London actively championed enlargement and Berlin was basically supportive, Paris could not hope to block enlargement. Now, however, with the UK on its way out of the EU and Germany politically paralysed, France has become increasingly explicit in its opposition and has found support from peers such as the Netherlands and Denmark which worry about the consequences for organised crime and immigration of opening the EU up to the Balkans.
The one caveat in France’s position is its willingness in principle to accept an expansion of the EU, once its members agree on the reforms needed to stabilise the fragile Eurozone. However, that remains as elusive a prospect as ever.
And this is where the two international dramas playing out in the Balkans – the New Cold War and the end of EU integration – meet. With the failure of its bid to join the EU, Albania now has nothing to lose from pursuing the alternative goal of national unification. Neither does Serbia which will at some point be compelled to annex the Serb enclave in Kosovo’s north to prevent its incorporation into an Albanian national state.
That in turn will create a generational opportunity for the Serbs of Bosnia to try and break away, offering their territory to Serbia as compensation for the loss of Kosovo. And a united Albania will create a new geopolitical opportunity for the Albanians of North Macedonia, who will want to attach their territory to this new state. It remains an open question how violent this process would be, but history suggests it would not be peaceful.
All this will create a headache for the US which has asserted its leading role in the Balkans with the aim of neutralising Russia but will end up responsible for managing this new round of instability. The probability is it will again have to reorder the Balkans, as it did in the 1990s and 2000s, to accommodate the nationalist forces which the EU has failed to suppress.
Given the predictability of all this, some may have wished the EU would simply honour its earlier commitment to integrate the region, starting with an offer on the 18th October 2019 to open membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. But as realpolitik takes over, the time for wishful thinking has long passed.