A pro-European, even if fragmented, European Parliament
The new European Parliament (EP) has a profoundly renewed face, with only 295
Members having been re-elected in May 2019. That means that 435 Members of the
EP (58% compared to 48,5% in 2014) are new. This Parliament has also seen new
groups gain strength, with an increase in the representation of Renew Europe and
While this has ensured the continuation of a pro-European absolute majority in the
EP, it has also meant that a grand coalition between the two main groups – the
European Popular Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – is no
longer enough to get through legislation. Both parties suffered losses in the
European elections. With 108 Members (14 more than in 2014), Renew Europe is
seen as potentially playing a rebalancing role in EP. Along with the Greens, these
two parties have become key allies in a fragmented parliament where an absolute
majority necessitates (depending on the configuration) at least three out of the four
pro-European parties cooperating. In parallel, the EP witnessed a sharp erosion of
the far left and important gains on the far right.
Since the nomination of the von der Leyen team, debates on contested names of
portfolios and designated Commissioners have brought to the fore the potential
diminishing returns of a fragmented EP. The dynamics of possible coalitions and
possible fragmentation across political parties have also played out during the
hearings of the designate Commissioners and the rejection of one from each of the
bigger political parties in the EP.
Nevertheless, the results of the European elections are encouraging for the Western
Balkan region since pro-EU enlargement parties remain in power in the new
legislature. In a letter to the candidate for the post as new European Commission
President, leader of the S&D Iratxe Garcia had asked, among other things, for
support to opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019. Since then, the S&D has also called for opening accession negotiations with
the two countries at the October 2019 EU Council meeting. When addressing the
European Council that rejected opening accession negotiations with North
Macedonia and Albania, on 17 October 2019, EP President David Sassoli (S&D)
also supported the European Commission recommendation to open negotiations
with both countries. He made clear that, “[w]hen we call on neighbouring countries to
make an extra effort to change and they do so, it is our duty to make a similar
Renew Europe did not include EU enlargement policy in their conditions for
confirming the von der Leyen nomination in July 2019, but the ALDE party (as it was
called in the previous legislature) has traditionally been in favour of EU enlargement,
as has the European People’s Party. The EPP President Joseph Daul had
expressed his support for the opening of EU accession talks for North Macedonia
and Albania, as had EPP Chairman Manfred Weber. For their part, the divisive
patterns of action of the far right when push comes to shove in EU decision-making
on key EU topics means that these parties will probably not pose a threat to the
Western Balkans’ EU accession path.
Members with a long experience on the Western Balkans and supporters of the
European perspective of the region remain in key positions in the EP configurations.
EPP Member David McAllister, recognised for his extensive knowledge of and
experience in EU foreign policy, including the EU enlargement process, stays on as
Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the previous legislature, he had also been
the Chair of the EP Delegation to Serbia. S&D Member Tanja Fajon, known for her
support of EU-Kosovo visa liberalisation and EU enlargement, more generally, now
holds this post. S&D Member Andreas Schieder, newly elected Chair of the EP
Delegation to North Macedonia, had also supported opening EU accession talks with
the country and retweeted the S&D group’s strong reaction to the European Council
decision: “We are outraged by total inability of European leaders to decide anything
on North Macedonia and Albania in EUCO. This damages the credibility of EU and
its institutions and any leverage in the Western Balkans region and on world stage.” 
In fact, in its October plenary, Parliament passed a motion expressing deep
disappointment over the failure to agree on opening EU accession talks with the two
countries at the latest EU summit.
A pro-EU enlargement European Commission, despite uncertainties
In July 2019, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen secured European parliamentary
approval with a very marginal majority to become the first female European
Commission president. She won over the S&D group and Renew Europe with her vision of a greener, fairer and rule-based Europe.
With the added endorsement by her fellow EPP, it is expected that she will have the necessary legitimacy to tackle
controversial issues. It is in this context that the promises made by von der Leyen
should be assessed.
Already during her campaigning for votes in Parliament for the confirmation of her
nomination, von der Leyen stated in a letter to the S&D group, that North Macedonia
is “a bright example of positive achievements” and pledged her support to EU
enlargement despite the well-known reservations of some EU leaders.  In her
Political Guidelines for the next European Commission, von der Leyen again
committed to supporting “the European perspective of the Western Balkans” and to
“stand[ing] behind the European Commission’s proposal to open negotiations with
North Macedonia and Albania”. She also explained that she sees the accession
process as an opportunity to promote and share EU values and interests: “We will
build the same future together”.  In that light, von der Leyen continues in the steps of
the 2018 Strategy for the Western Balkan of the Juncker Commission, which put the
enlargement perspective of the region back on the EU agenda. Indeed, both she and
European Commission President Juncker deeply regretted the October 2019
European Council decision.
In the meantime, rumours about the future of current DG NEAR are rightfully causing
unease among the candidate and potential candidate countries. Similarly, the
nomination of Spain’s current Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as the next EU High
Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the
European Commission (HRVP) has raised eyebrows since Spain is one of the five
countries of the EU that do not recognise Kosovo. However, a more nuanced look at
Spain and Borrell’s positions is needed. While arguably Spain has hardened its
stance against the recognition of Kosovo or the development of bilateral relations
with Kosovo, Borrell – a hard opponent to Catalan independence – has quite
controversially suggested that Kosovo is an independent state. In late 2017, he
stated, “Catalonia is not a colony, it is not occupied, it is not a state like Kosovo”. He
has also argued that if Serbia recognised Kosovo it would facilitate its EU accession
process.  Equally, a Spanish HRVP would mark the first institutionalised
communication between Spain and Kosovo since the 2008 unilateral declaration of
independence, given that Spanish representatives have refused to communicate
with or participate in meetings with their counterparts from Kosovo. To the surprise of
many, Borrell announced during his hearing in Parliament for his confirmation as
HRVP that his first official visit would be to Pristina. Ultimately, regardless of Borrell’s positions on the Western Balkans – or indeed those of Spain – the HRVP will
coordinate EU political action with all EU Member states and form positions that are
in line with EU pledges already made to the region.
Hesitant EU Member States in the shadow of the Brexit collateral
Experts have argued that EU Member States will play a stronger role in guiding
policy, including EU enlargement, in the new legislature. They explain that a move
from Juncker’s political to a “politicised” European Commission under von der Leyen,
one that is subject to more pressure from Member States, could compromise the
Commission’s role as guardian of the EU Treaties.  In a way, EU Member States’
backroom dealings that led to a deviation from the expected Spitzenkandidat
process, were a precursor to how they may deal with the EU accession process. The
latest European Council decision not to open EU accession talks with North
Macedonia and Albania give a better sense of the hurdles ahead. It also points to the
need to take seriously France’s insistence to reform the EU enlargement process.
Given the focus on reforming the EU internally, it is questionable whether EU
enlargement will be a priority for Member States. Rather, the responsibility for reform
will be put even more squarely on the political elites in the Western Balkans, asking
them to implement EU legal and institutional standards.
With three European Commissioners (France, Hungary and Romania), still not
confirmed by the EP, much speculation remains on the distribution of responsibilities
and the importance EU enlargement will have in the new legislature. As things stand,
the EU enlargement dossier does not seem directly linked to the responsibilities of
the incoming HRVP. Not once does von der Leyen mention EU enlargement, the
Western Balkans or any of the countries of the region, in her six-page mission letter
sent to the designate-HRVP Borrell. Moreover, while the Executive Vice-Presidents
in the von der Leyen Commission will oversee their own directorate general and
therefore have their own resources for their own initiatives, the HRVP post will rely
on the European Commission’s General Secretariat and only have a coordination
role. Rather, Borrell will be supported by the European External Action Service
(EEAS), which is rumoured not to handle directly anymore the Belgrade-Pristina
dialogue that would be delegated to a special EU envoy.
Experts and Members of the EP had raised concerns on the choice of Hungary for
the post as Commissioner for the neighbourhood and enlargement. László
Trócsányi, who is not a member of the country’s ruling Fidesz party but was
Hungary’s Justice Minister at a time when government worked to undermine the
checks and balances, was rejected by the EP on grounds of conflict of interests.
Observers had cautioned against the message his nomination would have given to the Western Balkans leaders, a region where rule of law reforms need to be
intensified rather than the opposite. Hungary remains a sensitive choice for the EU
enlargement dossier, given that Orbán has given asylum to and refused to extradite
North Macedonia’s former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled the country in
November 2018. To counter this image, Hungary poses itself as a pro-EU
enlargement country. The September 2019 statement on the Western Balkans by
the Visegrad Group (V4, composed of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and
Slovakia) has come at a key moment to remind Members of the EP that those
countries do not stand in the way of EU enlargement. Beyond expressing their
“unequivocal support for the EU accession of the Western Balkans”, the V4
specifically mentioned the European perspective of North Macedonia. They called on
“all EU stakeholders, in view of the October General Affairs Council, to maintain and
consolidate the positive momentum created as a result of the substantial progress
made in reforms as well as the entry into force of the historic Prespa Agreement”.
Surprisingly perhaps, the statement also points to the determination in supporting
efforts in the Western Balkans to strengthen the rule of law, fight organised crime
and corruption, regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations, and reconciliation. 
The anxiety in the EU Member States and at EU level because of the ever-changing
timing on the United Kingdom’s (UK) departure from the EU (Brexit) and the
potentially dire consequences Brexit could have on the EU, should not be
underestimated. Already on 24 July 2019, the day of Boris Johnson’s appointment as
UK Prime Minister, the EP coordination group on Brexit noted that although it looked
forward to working closely and constructively with Johnson, the risk of a disorderly
Brexit had greatly increased. The recent agreement on a reformed Withdrawal
Agreement has secured that the UK, should it exit the EU, has secured that it would
do so with a deal. However, the date at which Brexit will happen is a moving target.
The European Council has just agreed on a new extension, now on 31st January
2020. This uncertainty plays on the level of the EU’s focus on enlargement to the
Western Balkans. If/When the UK leaves the EU, the dynamics in the Council and in
Parliament could be affected since the UK was one of the most EU enlargement-
friendly countries, counter-balancing effectively the anti-enlargement countries. The
October Council decision may be a taste of that. In the case of the opposite scenario
materialising, whereby on the UK would still be part of the EU when the new
European Commission is in office, its incoming President von der Leyen has already
explained that the UK would have to name a Commissioner. Arguably, this will also
depend on how long the United Kingdom will remain inside the EU. The rejection by
Parliament of Hungary’s controversial Commissioner-designate could render the UK,
which has been a protagonist on EU enlargement, a contender for the EU
French President Macron's non may have been a necessary disrupter and the
waking call we all needed to break away from 'business as usual' on EU
enlargement. The EU approach has after all received criticism on the ineffectiveness
of the conditionality policy, the double standards applied, the monitoring of progress
on the enlargement process, among other. These will be challenges that the new EU
legislature is likely to tackle quickly if it is serious about keeping the EU enlargement
policy alive. It is also time for other EU Member States, especially those who are
behind this project, to manifest themselves more vocally and vehemently. At the EU
level, both in the European Commission and the European Parliament, the oui for
EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is resounding.
 President’s speech at the European Council, European Parliament, Brussels, 17 October 2019.
 The S&D group’s twitter account: https://twitter.com/TheProgressives/status/1185160738408665088
 “Von der Leyen: I will support opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania”, European Western Balkans, 15 July 2019.
 von der Leyen, U., A Union that strives for more: My agenda for Europe, Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission 2019-2024, Brussels, July 2019, pp. 18, 21.
 Ferrero-Turrión, R., Spain: Kosovo’s Strongest Opponent in Europe, in Armakolas, I. and Ker-Lindsay, J. (eds), The Politics of Recognition and Engagement: EU Member State Relations with Kosovo, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2019, pp. 231-232.
 Blockmans, S. and D. Gros, From a political to a politicised Commission?, No 2019-12, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, September 2019.
 Visegrad Group, V4 Statement on the Western Balkans, Prague, 12 September 2019.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).