A veto put forward by Emmanuel Macron, blocking the prospect of the accession negotiations of “North Macedonia” and Albania has caused shock across Europe and within the Euro-Atlantic community in general. The French President’s move is a conscious choice, based on the calculation of French national interests, which once again takes precedence over any other concern.
By ZACHARIAS B. MICHAS*
What one might notice when looking at the “big picture”, including all the players interested in developments in the Western Balkans, is that this is another defeat of American foreign policy, at least on a tactical level. The issue may be the sole responsibility of the EU, but it is common knowledge that Washington wanted accession negotiations with both countries, at least with “North Macedonia”.
The whole development has been greatly facilitated by the personal policy of President Trump, who does not miss an opportunity to express his conviction that the great distance from some regions of the planet significantly reduces the interest and motivation for active US involvement. It is a policy of “neo-isolationism”, albeit selective.
This is obviously not the view of the American “deep state”, nor does the above remark imply that if there were no disagreements in Washington, the French attitude would be different. For the time being, however, Trump’s stance has been able to short-circuit US foreign policy, and the results are obvious on many fronts.
The United States seeks to integrate Albania and “North Macedonia” into Western cooperation and security structures, in an effort to remove what US diplomacy is accustomed to calling “malign influence”. Thus it describes the Russian presence in areas Washington wishes to control in the context of its geostrategic planning, thereby eliminating the Russian presence.
American planning, in terms of EU “target countries” integration, was stalled by Paris, although it is clear that the main objective of integrating these countries into NATO has been achieved. Membership in the Atlantic Alliance allows, secures, and legitimizes the presence of allied forces in these countries.
The rationale of French diplomacy
The first interpretation of the French attitude could be called literal. There are some formal and substantive conditions for joining the EU. If we were to speak clearly and not hide behind our finger, neither Skopje nor Tirana would have had any luck. They do not qualify.
But because the perspective of dealing with the issue is purely geopolitical, there are ways of overcoming obstacles and achieving the objective. However, this means that France is formally covered and may argue that the essential issue of fulfilling the conditions for opening accession negotiations may be cited as the reason for its disagreement. The accession of countries without highly democratic credentials and multiple problems, such as organized crime in the case of Albania, is not a desirable development for Paris. And this is not just a pretext.
If similar discounts are adopted in the case of other countries, there is a fear that EU authorities will relax and such states will gain a collective voice and eventually the ability to influence Union policy in undesirable directions. Other European powers simply choose to downplay the criteria for various reasons.
Concerning France’s real concerns and objections, the main point is that it has consistently opposed further enlargement of the EU and prioritizes deepening integration. Another reason for explaining the French objection to intra-European balances is that Paris has no reason to want the German-influenced countries to join. This could affect the informal balance of power within the EU especially on the ‘Franco-German axis’. The case of Skopje is perhaps the most typical.
The French attitude towards Russia
In the Balkans, which traditionally produces conflicts as a result of the interaction of the major powers, everyone has made their choice. Their regular moves are aimed at securing access and expanding their influence as much as possible. The debate mainly concerns the US and Russia, while the much more mild Chinese diplomatic infiltration is already worrisome for the West.
The Russians do not want to be banished from the Balkan region and one of the strong points of their presence is Skopje. In the case of Albania, the Russian attitude focuses on the special relationship Russia has with Serbia, which has a reasonable interest in developments in the Kosovo issue, which is largely inhabited by Albanians.
A further interpretation of the motives that led to the French veto is linked to the aforementioned reality. France is trying to fend for itself in the conflict between Moscow and Washington, claiming its own role and promoting its interests at the same time.
This should be noted in Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement that Europe has come to find a new code of communication and new operational balances with Russia. In this statement, the French president implied that both the EU and Russia have only to gain from it. This is a statement that is clearly not in line with the US conflict with Russia.
According to the French view, the EU avoids Russia’s excessive dependence on China, which is increasingly recognized as a truly dangerous competitor. Russian interest is identical, despite the rapidly developing of a notion of a “strategic axis” between Moscow and Beijing. Moscow has many reasons not to want to depend on China, though the Russian position will always strive to maintain a delicate balance with all major players in the international system.
The new thinking of French diplomacy vis-a-vis Russia is not very new. During the Cold War, France differed from the rest of the West in its relations with the then USSR. However, France could have taken into account that the red light for Skopje and Tirana is an indirect gesture of Russian policy facilitation in the Balkans.
Great benefits for France
The French may have calculated that beyond the margins left by the controversial messages that Washington is sending, for the West as a whole, the damage caused by the French veto is small, as Albania and “North Macedonia” have joined NATO. The French option also facilitates the development of a privileged position over other powers in Serbia, which remains a key country for Balkan security and a future target for integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.
In conclusion, by blocking the accession negotiations between Tirana and Skopje, France is achieving multiple goals. It strengthens its position vis-à-vis Germany within the EU, closes its eyes to Russia, acquires a pivotal role in the debate on the future of Russian-European relations and at the same time is placing itself in the lead on the Balkan chessboard.
* Zacharias V. Michas is Director of Studies at the Institute for Security and Defense Analysis (ISDA)