On her official visit to Kyiv on June 8, 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that “we [the European Union] are with you [Ukraine] as you dream of Europe”. Following this statement, von der Leyen gave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an envelope outlining vital steps towards European Union (EU) membership. On the duration of assessing the questionnaire, von der Leyen declared an unusual time frame of weeks, not years. Is the promise of cutting down time feasible for the Commission? If yes, will it help speed-up the process of accession also for other states, such as North Macedonia?

Accession to the EU takes place in three stages. In the first stage, when a state meets the necessary criteria, it receives the status of an official candidate for membership. This does not imply that formal discussions have begun. The next stage entails formal membership negotiations which includes the adoption of established EU law, preparations for application and its correct enforcement, and the implementation of judicial, administrative, economic, and other reforms required to meet the country’s accession criteria. In the final stage, the state joins the EU after these discussions and their subsequent changes have been completed to both parties’ satisfaction.

In the case of Western Balkan countries, for example North Macedonia, there is an additional stage, so to speak. The so-called Stabilization and Association Process (SAP), has three aims for the EU’s relationship with the Western Balkans: politically stabilizing the nations and supporting their rapid transition to a market economy, increasing regional cooperation, and looking for accessible translations of the previous possible EU membership. The Commission publishes annual SAP reports each autumn.

The southernmost part of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRM), obtained its independence in 1991 and continued to have contractual relations with the European Communities for the next five years. It linked a Cooperation Agreement as well as Trade and Textile Agreements in 1997 and signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Communities in 2001, which was enforced in June 2004. In 2005, the Commission highlighted that the application of the state depends on meeting the so-called Copenhagen Criteria and the conditions set up by the SAP in 1997 which had been integrated into the SAA. The European Council backed the decision of the Council of the EU to grant FYRM candidate status. Following an invitation from the European Council, the Commission reported on advancements and finalized the country’s Progress Report in October 2009, recommending that EU membership discussions begin. The European Council, however, did not decide to start the membership discussions in December 2009 and has continued to postpone the decision despite the Commission’s constant wish for opening accession negotiations. Until today, North Macedonia continues to be a candidate country, stuck in stage one.

What has been holding Macedonia back from accession negotiations for all these years? The answer lies in the cultural and historical identities of its neighboring states. Primarily, Greece, which saw a political dispute in the country’s name. This was finally resolved in 2018, after both countries signed the Prespa Agreement, and the state became officially known as “the Republic of North Macedonia.”

The next hurdle came in 2019, months after the country had made Albanian the second official language in the country. This time Macron’s veto hindered their progress as France proposed a renewed strategy for EU enlargement into the Western Balkans. The French veto is consistent with their European objective of deepening integration in response to Brexit. According to the French policy of deepening, the EU’s present functioning should be enhanced first, and then new member admissions can be considered. In contrast, accession of Western Balkan states would require a widening integration. The latest set-back has been from another neighboring dispute, namely Bulgaria. The rivalry between the two nations has resurfaced around a single historical individual, Goce Delcev, who is claimed by both countries as their own. One of the biggest independent Bulgarian Research Agencies, Alpha Research, published a study in January 2022 in which 69% of their respondents answered that Bulgaria should not support North Macedonia’s negotiations with the EU before an agreement on the disputed issues. This national opposition is a continuation of a strong Bulgarian policy carried out vis-à-vis its neighboring state, the latest being the “Framework Position in Relation to EU Expansion and SAP: Republic North Macedonia and Albania” presented by the Bulgarian government in October 2019. In this framework, Bulgaria emphasized strict preconditions, highlighting the continuous blockage of North Macedonian EU integration if it is accompanied by the European legitimization of a state-sponsored, anti-Bulgarian ideology. Sofia’s extended blockage in Brussels is continuing to hurt diplomatic relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria while also delaying the accession process. North Macedonia has formally been in the first stage of accession talks for the past 18 years. The society which had previously been known to have an optimistic and confident stance in the field of EU integration has shifted their perspective. Since the French veto, they have stopped blaming the Macedonian government agencies for inability or lack of action and turned pessimistic of the EU instead. The growing dissatisfaction of the people shows that the durability of the process has a negative correlation on the pro-EU mindset of civilians.

Have there been lessons learned and can the EU help pave a shorter way forward for Ukraine? The answer is no. Although von der Leyen continues making ambitious promises, the EU Member States are not all in favor of speeding up the enlargement timelines. Ukraine’s membership has been backed by Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland while states such as France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands are not yet fully on board. For example, the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte pointed out that what’s important is that Ukraine has asked to be a member of the EU and that there is no fast-track procedure for succession. The extensive corruption in Ukraine, the lack of institutional stability, and the country’s poor economic situation alarms Western European nations that oppose pushing Ukraine to EU candidacy status. This has additionally been pointed out by the French President Macron in his address to the European Parliament, as Macron acknowledged that the Ukrainian reform process to meet EU criteria will take several years, probably several decades. As has been pointed out in the example of Ukraine, there is no such thing as a free pass on the road to EU membership. Considering that France is the Presiding Country to the Council of the EU until the end of June 2022 and the first of the presiding trio (with Czech Republic and Sweden), the French outlook of European deepening in contrast to widening integration is due to prevail. This means that we will not be seeing any new Member States in the EU within the next weeks or months. Hopefully, however, the EU will fulfill its promises to open negotiations with proactive states like North Macedonia while membership-seeking states must fulfill their obligations and act as a catalyst for deeper EU integration.

Written by Ema Odra Raščan; Edited by Christine Uhlig

Photo Credit to Claudio Wedenig/Freepic