EU Has Turned Enlargement into a Hamster Wheel
French President Emmanuel Macron, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/MICHEL EULER / POOL MAXPPP OUT
In recent years, North Macedonia and Albania worked hard. They believed that they were about to start accession negotiations. They had a meaningful and inspiring interim goal. Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, North Macedonia, Albania - all these countries managed to carry out difficult reforms before gaining candidate status or starting accession negotiations.
This worked because they saw their efforts as meaningful: It was clear what needed to be done; it took the country closer to the ultimate goal of membership. And it depended on the country's own efforts.
After talks start, however, the prospect of joining disappears into the distant future. Whether a country becomes a full member will not depend on its efforts alone. It depends on the state of the EU in the distant future.
"Before any effective enlargement, we have to know how to reform ourselves," French President Emmanuel Macron said last October, adding that, "if there is not a moment of collective awakening, we cannot bring in other members, even in five or ten years." It is unclear whether and when this will change. It also means that after the opening of accession negotiations there is no credible goal.
Imagine for a moment that all EU members would agree to open talks with North Macedonia and Albania without any change in how accession talks are conducted. What would happen? Most likely, very little. Having worked hard over the last years, North Macedonia and Albania would soon lose momentum. Their reformers would start to feel like hamsters in a wheel, realising that whatever effort they make, they will still not get any closer to EU membership.