Macron’s Veto Leaves Balkans Wide Open for Russia and China
After the EU snub, the United States needs to step up in the region.
At the 2003 EU-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, the EU declared “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” But today, that future seems very distant—and French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent veto of accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania called into question its very existence. His decision is likely to have grave and far-reaching consequences for the Western Balkans and the EU itself—unless the United States acts in time.
Macron’s veto upended the bargain that has long undergirded EU-Western Balkans relations and incentivized reform and reconciliation: that the EU would reward countries that undertook difficult reforms with progress on the membership track. As that path comes to a dead end, the region’s reformers are lost, their credibility at home weakened, and their electoral chances hamstrung. The starkest example is the newly renamed North Macedonia, whose prime minister, Zoran Zaev, negotiated an end to the country’s three-decade-long dispute with Greece over its name to keep its membership hopes alive. Having taken this politically risky step and been denied the expected reward, Zaev has called snap elections, which he may well lose to his party’s right-wing, nationalist rivals.
Zaev, who led the most genuinely reform-oriented government in the region in years, may be the first to pay the price for Macron’s obstructionism. But the wider list of likely victims and beneficiaries of France’s intransigence highlights two simple facts: The Western Balkans are not an obscure backwater but central to the shifting balance of power in Europe, and the region will not stand still while the EU has its back turned. Paris has not only undermined the efforts of genuine reformers and democrats across the region; it has planted the seeds of instability and emboldened the EU’s—and the United States’—chief geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.
As EU enthusiasm for enlargement has waned, dimming candidate countries’ hopes for membership, Russia and China have been all too eager to fill the resulting void in investment and influence. Serbia, despite being far advanced in talks with the EU, has emerged as the main destination for Chinese financial investment in Eastern Europe—including major contributions to its rapidly expanding security sector. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, China is responsible for the country’s single-largest postwar investment, the planned construction of a thermal coal plant in the city of Tuzla, even as the project has raised serious environmental, health, and political concerns among the Bosnian public. In Montenegro, Chinese firms are constructing a $1.5 billion cross-country highway that has caused the country’s debt to skyrocket to 80 percent of GDP.
Where China provides infusions of capital for infrastructure and other large-scale projects, Russia exerts influence through its dominance of the energy sector and its cultural ties. Russian and Chinese funding is often alluring because it comes with fewer strings attached related to issues like corruption and human rights. Last week, Serbia signed a free trade deal with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, despite the deal’s incompatibility with EU membership requirements. Russia’s Gazprom sponsors Belgrade’s storied “Red Star” soccer club, and the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik and more than 20 other Russian news outlets promote Russian narratives, which are often recycled by domestic media. As the EU pulls back, Chinese and Russian influence will only increase, exerting a pull that may over time prove strong enough to unmoor the countries of the region from their pro-Western, democratic foundations and undermine a fragile peace.
That is, unless the United States steps in. Washington can still seize the initiative to ensure that the collapse of the European project will not mean the end of the still tenuous post-Yugoslav political order. The United States has a chance to make a symbolic and practical return to the site of its greatest foreign-policy accomplishments since the end of the Cold War, to a region where American leadership is still widely popular and where the long-held U.S. goal of a Europe “whole, free, and at peace” is embraced but in doubt. To do this, the United States must undertake a series of short- and long-term initiatives across the region, first to stabilize the situation triggered by the French veto and then to offer a compelling and sustainable American vision for the Western Balkans.
The most immediate priority must be reassuring the countries of the region that NATO’s open door does, in fact, remain open. Practically, this means ensuring North Macedonia takes its seat as NATO’s 30th member at the London summit in December. It also means rebooting Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NATO perspective by ensuring the country’s incoming government is able to submit its first annual national program, after NATO finally greenlighted the country’s membership action plan last December. Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s tripartite state presidency and the most outspoken advocate of Russian incursions in the region, must be made to yield on his own blockade of this process.
Next, the United States should leverage its existing political architecture in the region to ensure stability and facilitate dispute resolution. Recently, the United States appointed two separate special envoys—regional envoy Matthew Palmer and special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue Richard Grenell. This demonstration of interest by Washington is welcome; even more welcome would be evidence that they are working in tandem in support of sound policy solutions.
Grenell, who also retains his post as the controversial U.S. ambassador in Berlin, possesses a sweeping mandate from Trump to clinch a “quick deal” between Belgrade and Pristina. This has renewed fears in the region that the “land swap” deal floated this year by the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the latter’s disputed status may be back on the agenda. The ill-defined plan flew in the face of decades of U.S. and European commitments to the territorial integrity of the post-Yugoslav states and was shelved due to opposition from Kosovo’s parliament and widespread condemnation by civil society and the international community. Nevertheless, the plan received a surprising degree of support in key European capitals, and even in the White House, prompting anxiety that Grenell may seek to revive it.
This cannot happen. Partition, of any sort, is a blueprint for conflict, likely of a regional sort. Washington must not imperil the alpha and omega of its policy in the Western Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav wars—peace. Instead, the United States must work with its European allies to provide an alternative framework for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Recent proposals for a regional common market and the region’s integration into the European Economic Area could provide alternative modes of interaction and cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the rest of the region, and allow for practical socioeconomic concerns to supplant elite brinkmanship.
However, to be truly effective, any effort toward regional economic integration should be presented as preparatory work for eventual EU membership, not as an alternative. To cement this point, the United States must pressure Paris to allow the EU to keep its promises to candidate countries. There is nothing to lose and much to be gained from allowing North Macedonia and Albania to finally begin their accession negotiations, even as the EU rethinks the broader enlargement process. That same framework must also be extended, in time, to Bosnia and Kosovo. Slow-walking enlargement may be necessary, but abandoning the project altogether, as Macron has done, will only destabilize the region and harm the interests of all but the West’s adversaries.
Further, Washington should coordinate with its European allies to launch a comprehensive anti-corruption and organized crime initiative across the Western Balkans. Support for tackling this issue cuts across all sectarian cleavages in the region, and it must be the foundation of any attempt at meaningful socioeconomic reform. To its credit, the United States sanctioned Dodik in January 2017 and his close associate Nikola Spiric in September 2018. But these sanctions should be expanded to include other leading political-criminal elements in Bosnia and across the Western Balkans, while EU member states should likewise be pressured to buttress these efforts in kind.
These proposals aim to reassert U.S. leadership in a region hungry for alternatives and do so by emphasizing practical, quality-of-life concerns with a strategic aim: countering growing Russian and Chinese designs on the Western Balkans. As in the 1990s, Europe has struggled to deliver on its commitments to the region and is now in need of U.S. assistance. Washington should provide it; it is in the interests of the United States, the EU, and the countries of the region. The Western Balkans offers a platform for the United States to revitalize its image and to reassert its capacities against its two primary geopolitical rivals. Washington should not squander this precious opportunity.
Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe. He is the author of the book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.