ENLARGING the European Union long ago fell out of fashion. No country has joined since Croatia, in 2013. As Hungary and Poland attack their judiciaries and clamp down on media it seems quaint to argue, as many once did, that negotiating membership could instil democratic habits in countries with memories of dictatorship. How much harder to make the case in the Balkans, the EU’s inner courtyard of unfinished business. Kosovo and Serbia are permanently at daggers drawn. Bosnia is an ungovernable mess.
But these problems should not distract from the extraordinary progress in the country known, since February, as North Macedonia. After years of authoritarian misrule the new government, led by Zoran Zaev, has started tackling corruption and reforming the judiciary. In a region riven by ethnic strife, the country’s Slavic majority and Albanian minority enjoy good relations. Most of all, last year Mr Zaev’s government signed the Prespa agreement with Greece, ending an absurd but destabilising dispute over the country’s name by adding a geographical signifier to it.
That is why the European Commission wants the EU’s governments to open membership talks with North Macedonia, along with Albania. It was the promise of accession to the EU (and NATO, which is forthcoming) that gave Mr Zaev space to push through Prespa at home. Yet in June 2018 his bid to start talks was kicked down the road for a year. Now further delay is likely. Such treatment is not only shabby, it is dangerous.
To start membership talks with a candidate country, every EU government must agree. Until now France and the Netherlands were the stumbling blocks. Emmanuel Macron’s argument that Europe must deepen before broadening concealed his fear that encouraging enlargement would help Marine Le Pen, his nationalist opponent. Now, just as Mr Macron is softening, a fresh obstacle has emerged in Germany. Angela Merkel’s government needs backing from the Bundestag to approve EU bids, and MPs from her Christian Democratic Union are resisting. They claim they need more time for debate. But that is a fig-leaf for opponents of enlargement. Some distrust Albania’s judicial system, but the two countries’ bids can be decoupled. Others simply want to give Mrs Merkel a black eye. And the chancellor’s authority is dwindling as the sun sets on her political career.
The original plan was to greenlight the two candidates’ EU bids at a meeting on June 18th. That now looks impossible. A special summit of leaders could be convened in July were North Macedonia’s bid sure to pass. But the Bundestag will soon begin its summer break. Another opportunity will not arise until October, and by then the habit of delay may have become ingrained.
Every day lost is perilous for Mr Zaev’s government. Having already suffered one delay, voters are sceptical. The opposition, still smarting at its ejection from office, will pounce at the first sign of failure. Moreover, by autumn Greece is likely to have a new centre-right government that will face pressure from anti-Prespa voters to veto the talks. More broadly, for the EU so brazenly to break its promise to one Balkan state will boost leaders in others who say the Europeans cannot be trusted. Other powers sniffing around, from Russia to China to Turkey, will nod sagely.
Conversely, opening talks with North Macedonia will strengthen the hand of pro-European reformers throughout the Balkans. (A delay for Albania, which remains politically unstable, is on balance justified.) Starting talks is no guarantee of successfully concluding them, as Turkey—which began negotiating in 2005 and is going backwards—demonstrates so depressingly. Croatia’s accession lasted eight years. The EU should not lose confidence in its most potent foreign-policy weapon. To reject North Macedonia would be cruel, self-defeating and wrong.