In Brief

The Debate Over Letting Balkan States Into the EU

As EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia falter, the bloc’s commitment to expansion has come under increasing doubt.

Even as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union (EU), several Balkan states are making their cases for being let in. But French President Emmanuel Macron and others have argued that the bloc needs major reforms before growing any larger. Critics say that a delay leaves the Balkans open for rival powers such as China and Russia to exert influence in the region.

Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker shakes hands with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Brussels.
Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker shakes hands with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Brussels. Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

What’s happening?

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At an October summit, France rejected a proposal to begin EU entry talks with Albania and North Macedonia, which had been in the works for years. France stood alone in blocking negotiations with North Macedonia, which has been a candidate for entry since 2005, but won support from Denmark and the Netherlands in opposing talks with Albania, a candidate since 2014.

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Macron contends that the bloc should focus on internal reforms before letting in any new members. But the move was heavily criticized by many other EU governments, top EU officials, and the U.S. State Department.

How close are Albania and North Macedonia to joining the EU?

Enlargement has been a priority for the EU since its founding, with the bloc’s membership expanding from twelve in 1993 to twenty-eight today.

Once a country’s application to join is approved by the European Commission and the European Council, it becomes an official candidate. The next step is the formal negotiation process, in which a candidate is expected to adopt EU law and other political and economic reforms, known as the Copenhagen Criteria. Once those standards are met to the satisfaction of all member states—each of whom has veto power—and EU institutions, it becomes a full member.

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The entire process can take decades; the most recent member, Croatia, applied in 2003, became a candidate in 2004, entered negotiations in 2005, and formally joined in 2013. Albania and North Macedonia are candidates but are now being blocked from starting negotiations, while Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are all candidates currently in the negotiation phase. The bloc lists Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as potential candidates.

What’s driving the opposition to them?

Enlargement proponents have seen Balkan membership as a way to stabilize a region that was riven by civil war in the 1990s. But concerns remain about organized crime, corruption, and the slow pace of reforms, especially in Albania. Some observers say Macron’s stance is also indicative of a broader wariness among EU members after a decade defined by financial and migration crises and the rise of populism.

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But Macron also argues that the entire accession process should be overhauled before any new members are admitted. He has proposed a preliminary plan for reform that would include tougher conditions and the ability to reverse the process if necessary. Experts say this is consistent with a long-standing French preference for focusing on the EU’s core members.

What’s at stake in the Balkans?

In opposition to Macron are many of the bloc’s top officials, including former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who called the decision a “historic error” before his term ended last month. They argue that going back on EU promises to open talks undermines the bloc’s credibility, especially after North Macedonia took the difficult political step of changing its name to end a bitter dispute with Greece.  The German government argued that freezing out the Balkans would create a “strategic vacuum” and undermine “stability, democracy, and reconciliation” in the region.

Chief among their concerns is the potential for adversaries, especially China and Russia, to fill that vacuum. North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev recently warned that his country could look to outside powers for trade and investment. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has made similar statements.

Experts say this process is well underway, with China increasingly handing out loans to Balkan states as part of its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. North Macedonia is particularly indebted to Beijing, which holds a fifth of its external debt, and China is financing ports, highways, and power plants across the region. Russia, meanwhile, has invited both Albania and North Macedonia to join its economic bloc, the Eurasian Union, part of Moscow’s efforts to win influence in Europe and divide the EU.

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