The face of a hundred-years old turtle. Photo: reddit / massimo_bragi

End the turtle race

How the EU can address the crisis of the accession process

North Macedonia has been blocked on its accession path for more than a decade. It is no outlier. All Western Balkan states are stuck. Their accession process resembles a bus without wheels, with North Macedonia discussing conditions for moving up a row of seats inside a vehicle going nowhere. It is time for the EU to acknowledge this reality and enhance the process by offering all European democracies membership in the European Single Market as a credible interim goal.

ESI newsletter: Elephants in Skopje – Balkan turtle race and Ukraine (15 July 2022)

​​​​​​​ESI report: The Balkan Turtle Race – A warning for Ukraine (13 July 2022)

Greece and then France have blocked North Macedonia’s EU accession process for more than a decade. In late 2020 Bulgaria took over, insisting that ethnic Macedonian identity was based on identity-theft, which must end before North Macedonia can open its first negotiation chapter.

The EU chose to ignore this. European Commission president von der Leyen stated on a recent visit to Skopje that “bilateral issues, such as history issues, are not conditions for accession.” For Bulgaria, however, history remains the central condition for North Macedonia’s accession. The recent “French proposal”, that von der Leyen endorsed, is now turning historic issues from a Bulgarian condition into an EU condition. 

Unless this is remedied, we will soon see Academies of Sciences and foreign ministries in other countries drawing up “historical conditions” to be met by their neighbours who aspire to join the EU. This has already started to happen in Zagreb. If this becomes the new normal, the already dramatically weakened credibility of the accession process might fully wither away. 

Far from North Macedonia being an outlier, all Western Balkan states are stuck. Their accession process resembles a bus without wheels, with North Macedonia discussing conditions for moving up a row of seats inside a vehicle going nowhere. It is time for the EU to acknowledge this reality and take action.

Even if North Macedonia musters the two-third majority in its parliament to change its constitution according to Bulgarian demands, the EU expects that it will take North Macedonia many more years to open all negotiating chapters. Few point out how absurd this is. According to the European Commission’s own assessments of preparedness, North Macedonia is today already as prepared or better prepared in 23 of 33 chapters than Montenegro which has already opened all chapters.

The EU considers some issues, such as the rule of law, of “fundamental” importance in the accession negotiations. The Commission found that Albania, North Macedonia and frontrunner Montenegro are all equally prepared, and all ahead of Serbia and Turkey on these very issues. So what difference does the focus on fundamentals really make during accession negotiations? And how can such a process inspire difficult reforms?

The answer is: it doesn’t. In recent years neither Serbia nor Bosnia nor North Macedonia have made progress. Transformation is a chimera. Accession has turned into farce.

This is dangerous. But it is also easy to remedy, if there is the will. One way to reenergize the accession process immediately is for the EU to show that it is still possible for countries that meet membership criteria, as objectively assessed by the European Commission, to become members. The Council could declare in 2022 that it is getting ready for Montenegro, the most advanced candidate with the longest positive track record, to become a member by early 2026, if it meets the criteria.

At the same time the European Union could send a strong signal to the whole region: any European democracy that meets the criteria, including respect for human rights and the rule of law, as assessed by the European Commission in its annual reports, should gain access to the European Single Market and to the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, people, services and capital. Its citizens and businesses would thus enjoy many of the same rights as those from EU members or Norway and Iceland enjoy today. With this step, the assessments of progress – “merit” – would immediately matter once again.