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{Analysis} French public opinion on EU membership of the Western Balkans

This article offers analysis and comments about the Open Society Foundation’s report « French public opinion on EU membership of the Western Balkans« .

After accepting Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013, the enlargement stopped. The European Union has undergone 7 waves of enlargement and no longer seems to integrate new members in the foreseeable future. On July 14, 2014, Juncker, just elected President of the European Commission, declared « There will be no further enlargement in the next five years« . In 2016, the enlargement process even reversed as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. After four years of negotiations, Brexit came into effect on December 31, 2020.

Many countries and observers drew a bitter conclusion: the European Union no longer functions as well as it used to. This observation led France and the Netherlands to react. During a summit of the EU on October 17, 2019 they put their veto for the following steps of the negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia to integrate into the Union. The French President, Emmanuel Macron declared on this subject that he will only support « the enlargement if Europe first undergoes a deepening and a reform« .

Florent Marciacq, a member of the Balkan Observatory at the Fondation Jean Jaurès, states in another publication, France prefers « to substitute for a time the objective of ‘enlargement’ with that of ‘rapprochement’, to maintain and even increase technical assistance to the countries of the region, but to stop maintaining the illusion of a future membership« [4]. In March 2020, the rules of enlargement were modified and integration became a longer process.

This downturn of the enlargement took place in a context of mistrust of the European institutions by its citizens. In 2019, 58% of the French were against an enlargement of the European Union as well as 60% of the Dutch, 57% of Germans and Austrians and 56% of Belgians were also reticent.

Source: Timon Studler – Unsplash.

The French are reluctant to enlarge the European Union, particularly to the Western Balkans.

In February 2021, the Open Society Foundation in partnership with d|part – Think-tank for political participation published a report on « French public opinion on EU membership of the Western Balkans« . The report summarized a two-step study. Firstly, a survey was distributed to 4017 people among whom, 2025 forms were considered valid in March 2020. Then in September 2020, a sample of 28 people who had participated in the first stage were gathered and divided into four groups. The study showed that most French citizens were opposed to EU enlargement, especially in the Western Balkans. While 81% of the people surveyed by the Open Society Foundation, support the integration of Norway and 75% of Iceland, only, 27% want the integration of Montenegro, 26% of Ukraine, 25% for Macedonia, 22% for Serbia, 22% for Bosnia and Albania, 15% for Kosovo and 12% for Turkey.

The study shows that the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is not essential for the people surveyed, since 53% believe that the accession of the Balkans “would have not affect their lives much or at all” unlike the accession of Turkey which “would affect lives” of 53% of the respondents. We also note that there is no strong opinion on the integration of the Balkans, since 43% of them had changed their mind between the beginning and the end of the survey.

The report also highlights a lack of knowledge and interest for this region among The French. Indeed, only one in ten people (10%) had visited one of these countries, and only one in six (18%) knew someone personally from the region. The study shows a correlation between interest in the region and the desire for enlargement, as supporters of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans were more likely to indicate that they knew someone from the region (between 24-33% of supporters, compared to 14-19% of opponents and undecided) or that they had been there (24% among supporters particularly concerned, compared to only 5- 9% of opponents and undecided).

Thus, attitudes towards EU enlargement reflects a more general opinion about the EU than a direct rejection of the Western Balkan countries. This opinion is influenced by a lack of knowledge or interest of the region. Indeed, the report shows that those who reject Balkan membership are also those who perceive the EU negatively. Among these opponents, 81% believe that the addition of 12 countries between 2004 and 2007 was a negative decision.

The French concerns about the resilience of the European Union

Both supporters and opponents of integration share particular concerns about the Western Balkans but seem to approach them differently. They agree on a range of concerns including: economic disparities in the Union, potential labour migration and its impact on the French economy, as well as issues concerning democratic stability in the Western Balkan countries and in the EU as a whole. Opponents of integration believe that the Union in its current state does not have the capacity to provide for one or more new members, and certainly not for those who need a great deal of support and assistance. They also highlight the problem of posted workers who come to France as well as relocation of French companies abroad. It should be noted that contrary to economic concerns, cultural worries do not seem to be a prominent reason for opposing the integration of the Western Balkan countries. On the contrary, the less numerous supporters of Balkan integration believe that the Union will be able to overcome all of these problems using the example of Portugal to argue.

All participants agree that the integration of the Western Balkans would be highly beneficial for them but of little benefit to the European Union. The only advantage is that it would allow member states to protect themselves from the Russian, Chinese or American influence. Some participants also pointed out the lack of respect for the rule of law and high levels of corruption in countries that are already part of the European Union. Consequently, they do not consider the integration of the Western Balkans-which they perceive as a corrupt region where many democratic criteria are not respected. Several interviewees put forward the idea of a reversible enlargement process in order to oblige new members to continue respecting criteria standards, even after their integration.

Source: Pexels.

A cruel ignorance of European processes and institutions and a criticism of the Union’s communication

After showing the map of Europe to all the participants, many were surprised that these countries were not already part of the Union, given their geographical position. They were also surprised when they learned of the existence of the German legislation (West Balkan Regelung) that already allows nationals from the Western Balkan countries to emigrate to Germany to work or study. These two reactions prove the existence of shortcomings in the communication of the European Union that all participants recognize. Indeed, opponents as well as the undecided, felt that they lacked information on the decision-making process regarding the EU enlargement procedures. Supporters stated that enough information was available but that they had not yet consulted it. A lack of information about the progress made by the candidate countries meeting the criteria set in the enlargement process, was also pointed out.

The Open Society Foundation’s report believes that it will be difficult to change French attitudes on these issues since the possibilities are limited « because of its potentially adverse consequences for the EU, and France within the EU« . The solution put forward is therefore to « address concerns regarding the future of the EU and to ensure that the communication on the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans does not encourage negative views on European cohesion among French voters« . In order to achieve this, the report states that the European institutions should « provide transparency and to ensure that people, not just in France, feel taken along in the process« . This would help reassure, and even change the minds of some opponents as well as undecided voters on enlargement issues who have expressed a “perceived lack of control over the decision-making process« . The primary objective could therefore be to strengthen citizens’ confidence in the institutions and to include enlargement in the debates on the functioning of the EU and France’s role in it before integrating new countries.

Scientific supplement to the report

This study carried out by the Open Society Foundation allows us to clarify and deepen the reasons for this growing disenchantment between the French and the European institutions. Florent Marciacq, in another publication, takes the opposite view of French public opinion and reassures about the consequences of enlargement. He explains that the latter remains positive since the Union has, on many occasions, undertook internal reforms and a deepening of its construction after the integration of new members, as Emmanuel Macron finally wishes. He also warns of a potential withdrawal of the European Union in the Western Balkans which « even temporarily, will first weaken the actors involved in the most sensitive issues (rule of law, democratization, etc…) » since « they do not have many levers, given the media landscape, often controlled by the State or the politicization of administrations« .

A hardening of the conditions of integration does not mean that once admitted, the new members will not return to less democratic practices. Moreover, by setting too high of standards. it would send a negative message to the inhabitants of the Balkans who will equate integration with a distant illusion.

The Open Society Foundation’s report highlights French citizens’ feelings about the European Union’s enlargement to the Western Balkans. Nevertheless, the solutions put forward are limited to strengthening citizens’ confidence in the institutions and to improving the clarity of this enlargement strategy. The report forgets to suggest solutions to the two main concerns of opponents of the EU enlargement. According to the interviews, French are mostly worried about the legislation on posted workers that is decried and they also raise concerns about the economic resilience of Balkan countries. Many questions remain unanswered on these subjects. Should the legislation on posted workers be modified to reconcile the French with the European Union?  How can the EU make the most vulnerable economies of other members more resilient? How can the Union force accepted countries to keep respecting EU standards once integration is achieved?

What solution does the scientific community propose to reform the enlargement policy? 

Srdjan Cvijić, a Balkan specialist who also participated in the Open Society Foundation’s study, suggests several modifications in an interview. In particular, he recommends the introduction of qualified majority voting in the accession process, « that of 55% of member states, representing at least 65% of the European population« . Thus, he specifies that « it would be unlikely to see the formation of a coalition of small countries opposing Germany, France and Italy » and that would prevent situations such as the scenario of the integration of Northern Macedonia. Plus, this solution is the more simple to adopt since it is not necessary to modify as “the European Council can decide unanimously to introduce the rule of qualified majority on questions of foreign policy (provided in article 31, paragraph 3)”. Srdjan Cvijić highlights the role of France that is the most reluctant country to take this step forward, given that it already occupies « a dominant position on foreign policy issues with its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its nuclear force, and its global role« . He adds that « France will therefore never want to renounce the principle of unanimity without receiving something in return, for example the introduction of qualified majority rule in fiscal policy issues« . Nevertheless, the specialist points out that the antagonism between Germany and France on this subject has been diminishing in recent years.

Since solutions exist to improve the decision making process within European institutions, in order to move forward another important question remains unanswered: Do the citizens of the Balkans still want to join the European Union and is it really advantageous for them?

Srdjan Cvijić in the same interview points out the existing difficulties to answer this question, especially concerning Serbia. In 2009, 73% of Serbs were in favour of joining the European Union while only 50% in 2019. The researcher explains that this result reflects more a « broken dream of an entire population » and that according to him « a referendum would give results very different from those of the polls« . Also, he warns about authoritarian excesses within the European Union itself which lead Serbs to ask themselves « If the Union tolerates all this, do we really want to join it?”

Integration also presents another risk for the Balkan countries, as they could face a massive exodus of the active population to the richest countries of the Union. As Florent Marciacq points out in another article, 10,000 Croatians emigrated each year abroad before Croatia’s integration into the European Union. Since the integration, 30 000 Croatians continue to leave their country every year. This fear is absolutely legitimate since more than half of the young Albanians, Bosnians, Kosovars and Macedonians affirm that they would leave their country if they were given the possibility.

Today, the situation between the European Union and the Western Balkans is paralyzed. With the exception of Northern Macedonia, the countries of the Western Balkans are struggling to democratize themselves while the European Union is endeavoring to further integration. While waiting for a new political impulse, the glances then turn towards the two leading countries, France and Germany which are heading towards new electoral deadlines in 2022. Will they be able to synchronize their policies and renew together the EU construction? Or will they fall back into their bad habits?

Guillaume Pichelin

Guillaume Pichelin is currently Intern at the European Movement in Serbia. He is pursuing a Franco-Russian Master’s degree « Europe-Russia: Global Strategies and Issues » at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Moscow in partnership with SciencesPo Bordeaux. Guillaume is interested in international relations, development and identity issues in the post-Soviet space as well as reconciliation processes in the Balkans.

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