The EU’s Balkan freeze benefits Turkey

“Cold weather coming from the Balkans.”  There is hardly anyone in Turkey unfamiliar with the phrase.  We are now in the middle of a June heatwaves yet chill is permeating the region’s politics.  Worst affected are Albania and North Macedonia. It seems their hopes to kick start membership negotiations with the EU will be frustrated at the forthcoming summit of the Union’s heads of state and government.  Despite the positive judgment in the European Commission’s regular report which came out on May 29, there is no unanimity amongst the member states. There is reason to believe that enlargement sceptics led by the French President Emmanuel Macron will stick to their guns and have the decision on Skopje and Tirana postponed. 

That will be the second time the EU would kick the can down the road. In the summer of 2018, the Union decided, again on the insistence of France, to issue a set of additional conditions and benchmarks for North Macedonia and Albania.  The EU singled out sensitive areas such as the rule of law and judicial reform as priority. Now, despite progress acknowledged by the Commission, the EU is to decide that more needs to be done.  It is not that either candidate country has a stellar record. Albania, in particular, is highly problematic. In the past couple of days, recordings were leaked indicating that Edi Rama’s government might have colluded with criminals to manipulate elections.  In the recently renamed North Macedonia, too, concerns about state capture have not gone away.  Still, the (non)decision of the EU has to do, first and foremost, with fear of resurgent far right parties preying on fears of migrants, and only then about the integrity of institutions in the Western Balkans.  To put it bluntly, French President Emmanuel Macron is less worried about the quality of North Macedonia’s fledgling democracy than Marine Le Pen.  That is said to be the reason why the European Commission postponed its annual progress reports until after the European Parliament elections. 

A potential “Non” at the forthcoming summit will be particularly damaging to North Macedonia. The coalition cabinet headed by Zoran Zaev is sustained, in no small part, by its commitment to the country’s goals of joining Western clubs.  With the Prespa Agreement signed with Alexis Tsipras, Zaev took a bold step to resolve the so-called Macedonia name dispute with Greece, dragging on for more than a quarter century, in order to clear the most serious hurdle on the path to NATO and the EU.  Last January, the Republic of Macedonia changed its constitution to adopt the name of North Macedonia, a change resented by many of its citizens.  While the country is on the verge of joining NATO, having signed an accession treaty, the EU is proving elusive.  Zaev has openly warned that the delay might bring his cabinet down and put domestic stability in jeopardy. 

Where is Turkey in all this?  Last week, I attended a conference looking at the Turkish policy in the Balkans convened by Suedosteuropa Gesellschaft, Germany’s academic association dedicated to studying the region.  Though participants took different views on whether Turkey is a competitor of the EU in the Balkans,  everyone agreed that Ankara is benefitting from the enlargement fatigue in the region.  Local leaders have been all too happy to nurture political and business ties with Erdogan. From Sarajevo to Sofia, power holders see Turkey as a welcome ally and prefer to turn a blind eye to its president’s periodic squabbles with the Merkels and Macrons of this world.  Erdogan, in turn, basks in the glory of a leader of Balkan Muslims which also holds appeal to his grassroots supporters at home.  In short, no enlargement benefits Turkey, even if it has been frustrated over its own, all  but dead, membership talks with the EU. 

It is also notable that thus far Turkey has not ratified North Macedonia’s accession to NATO. Ankara conditions its endorsement on the extradition of Turkish citizens linked to Fethullah Gülen, leader of a religious group Turkish government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016.  That Turkey should come as a spoiler is regrettable. After all, it has been supportive of the Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic integration since the very start in the 1990s.  Its long-term strategic interest remains unchanged, notwithstanding strained relations with the U.S. and several major European countries. If the Western Balkans join the NATO and ultimately the EU, there will be security as well as economic dividends for Turkey which is a member of the Atlantic Alliance and part of the Europe’s integrated marketplace thanks to the Customs Union. Last but not least, Turkey is a Balkan country owing to its geographical location, history and human ties to its neighbours.  That is what sets it apart from other “external players” such as Russia or China whose expanding footprint in the region is viewed by the West as a cause of concern.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.