Will Croatia’s EU Presidency Unblock Western Balkans’ EU Hopes? 

by Natko Vlahovic, Vlahovic Group LLC

On January 1, Croatia took over the rotating six-month EU presidency for the first time since joining in 2013. Now, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic could play the role of kingmaker for the future of EU enlargement in the Balkans.

EU2020HR tasks Croatian PM Plenkovic with driving forward the Council’s work on EU legislation, ensuring orderly legislative processes and cooperation among member states around key EU priorities like the Green Deal, Artificial Intelligence, the EU budget and the Conference on the Future of Europe. In addition, PM Plenkovic places EU enlargement in the Western Balkans as the top priority of his presidency.

PM Plenkovic fully understands the importance (and ability) of the Croatian presidency to elevate Croatia’s prominence and influence in the EU. In order to leave a mark, PM Plenkovic needs to have at least one of his presidency priorities wrapped up before the beginning of July.  The EU – Western Balkans enlargement process is PM Plenkovic’s best prospect for success.

One way that PM Plenkovic can achieve his goal is by making sure France accepts the proposed modified enlargement approach. President Macron has already scored the domestic political points that he needs for the upcoming municipal elections in March 2020, allowing him to attend to multilateral issues.

UNBLOCKING THE WESTERN BALKANS

President Macron delivered a strong, supportive message to PM Plenkovic during his visit to Paris in January, stressing the importance of EU enlargement for Croatia and wishing Plenkovic success for the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb to be held on May 7.

PM Plenkovic’s comment on the meeting with President Macron was that he felt there was a good reason for the evolution for the French position on EU enlargement.

Most importantly, President Macron has stressed his interest lay somewhere else: the Conference on the Future of Europe.

On November 25, 2019, France and Germany jointly issued a non-paper proposing a Conference on the Future of Europe from 2020 to 2022. The idea is for the conference to determine new or amended agreements on the future of European democracy during 2020–2022 and to solicit the views of Europeans on democracy and the functioning of EU institutions.

This conference is where French and Croatian political interests overlap. Dubravka Suica, EU Commission Vice-President in charge of Democracy and Demography, is in charge of organizing and running the Conference on the Future of Europe on behalf of the EU Commission. Suica is also a member of the Croatian ruling party, the HDZ, and a very close associate of PM Plenkovic. Her position offers an avenue for exerting influence on the work of the Conference to PM Plenkovic, something he will want to use, but also something he will be using bilaterally.

President Macron’s announced interest in the work of the Conference and PM Plenkovic’s wild card in the form of Ms. Suica being the person in charge of the Conference on behalf of the Commission might as well be the moment when the Croatian and French interests are fully aligned. As a result, it is very likely that President Macron will consent to the unblocking of the enlargement process if the political interest of France were well-positioned on the agenda of the Conference. In such a scenario, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic would become kingmaker for the future of EU enlargement in the Balkans.

EU DIPLOMACY IN ACTION

During the October 15, 2019 EU General Affairs Council meeting, Macronvetoed a decision to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, making reform of the EU accession process a precondition to opening membership talks with the two Western Balkan candidate countries.

In November 2019, France released a non-paper advocating for a new, gradual approach to EU accession. The approach is organized around policy blocks, more stringent conditions, increased financial support, and reversibility of the process.

The French non-paper on reforming the EU enlargement process has been taken onboard by Oliver Varhelyi, EU Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Expansion Negotiations, whose road map on the modified accession process methodology is expected by the end of January.

EU institutions have condemned France’s proposal, calling it “a major historic mistake” and “a failure, not a mistake “. The U.S. Department of State also intervened, urging that both countries be allowed to start the accession talks and stating that “The United States will welcome an affirmative decision, recognizing both countries’ hard-fought gains on necessary reforms.” This position is in line with President Trump’s approach to the region, focused on fruitful defense and diplomatic partnerships and the inclusion of this strategically important region into the EU. Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia have already indicated they were prepared to work on improving the expansion process, provided it led to consensus on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been strongly advocating for Albania’s and North Macedonia’s prospects of accession to the EU, expressed regret over President Macron’s veto, saying that the issue would be revisited during the Croatian presidency.

Ursula Von der Leyen, European Commission President, made clear that the issue of EU expansion into the Western Balkans was first on the list of EC political priorities in her address to the European Parliament when she stated, “the EU’s door to membership remained open”. Upon assuming office, Von der Leyen also issued a Mission letter to Varhelyi, tasking him with keeping a credible perspective on future accession for the Western Balkans and accelerating the process through a merit-based assessment of each candidate country.

Commissioner Varhelyi visited Skopje and Tirana in January and conveyed a message that the European Commission remained confident that North Macedonia and Albania were ready to begin accession negotiations. His actions signaled a desire to reverse the stalemate in the EU integration process, perhaps in response to Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf States increasing their political and economic presence in the Balkans as the accession process stalled. Varhelyi stated that he expected member states to decide on their opening of accession talks before the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb.

If Prime Minister Plenkovic and President Macron agree on mutually promoting their respective political interests, France’s political equities in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe will be additionally protected, and at the same time, a major milestone of the Croatian presidency of the Council of the EU, the unblocking of the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, will be achieved.

ANTICIPATED NEXT STEPS

  •  January 29, 2020, the Commission discusses the modified enlargement methodology proposal.
  • Beginning of February, a roadmap on future enlargement is presented.EU member states expected to endorse the
  • March 26 and 27 2020, the European Council adopts the expansion package and clears the beginning of the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
  • Official opening of the accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in Zagreb in May 2020 during the key political event of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU, the EU-Western Balkans summit. The summit will also be an opportunity to discuss the long-term EU enlargement strategy, focusing on the financial framework of the enlargement process.


Natko Vlahovic has been working in the EU affairs arena since 2005 when Croatia started EU negotiations. He founded the government relations firm Vlahovic Group in 2012 and the Croatia-EU Business Council in Brussels in 2006. Vlahovic advises numerous multinational companies on public policy issues in Croatia and the Balkans. He regularly contributes analysis on the intersection of government and business in the region to the Croatian and global press. He can be found at @NatkoVlahovic and Vlahovic Group can be found @VlahovicGroup and www.vlahovicgroup.com.