Emmanuel Macron’s veto on negotiations regarding North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has undermined the position of the European Union in the Balkans. The EU has in effect turned its back on the Balkan states, regarding it as little more than an insignificant backwater. Unfortunately for Brussels, the nation-states in this region are not going to wallow in self-pity, awaiting a day in the future when a new opportunity for EU membership presents itself. The EU has failed to grasp the consequences of Macron’s ill-advised veto. It has created a vacuum that could be filled by one of the EU’s main rivals, Russia and China.
Chinese influence and financial investment is on the rise in the Balkans. Beijing offers capital for infrastructure improvements, and large-scale national projects. Russia’s influence comes from its dominant position in Eastern Europe’s energy sector and markets, as well as its cultural ties to the area. The EU withdrawal will only embolden Chinese and Russian efforts. The offers being presented by them also come with fewer strings attached then does EU membership. Unless this changes, it will only be a matter of time before the nations of the region gravitate away from the pro-Western, democratic foundations created in the post-Yugoslavia political order since 1999.
There’s little prospect of the EU changing course. Enlargement is no longer a priority for the supra-national body. The fortunes, and aspirations of the nations seeking membership no longer matter as much as they once did. In its own view, the EU already has enough on its plate to contend with and the Balkans can wait. Hence the reason why there wasn’t more resistance to Macron’s veto.
This short-sighted view could come back to haunt Brussels in the future. Whether the EU chooses to recognize it or not, the balance of power in Europe is shifting eastward. The sixteen year old warnings by Donald Rumsfeld about the Old and New Europes are coming to fruition. As it stands now, the EU appears to be unapologetically ensconced in the old ways of the old Europe.