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Kidnapping EU: misuse of the veto power on enlargement

On December 15th 2023, the leaders of Ukraine would have been shocked to hear that the EU might not provide its 50 billion euros as a result of Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s veto. The EU’s right of veto has often been unduly used and exploited by EU member states against their neighbours, generally for issues unrelated to EU values.

March 8, 2024 - Rigels Lenja - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Wiola Wiaderek / Shutterstock

In 2008, when North Macedonia was preparing to join NATO with the strong support of the US Bush administration, Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis blocked the accession. Karamanlis argued that his government would block also the country’s further accession to the EU. The disagreement revolved around the name. The Greeks did not recognize Macedonia as it was named then as they claimed that their northern region was the actual Macedonia. The dispute intensified in December 2006 as the Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski decided to name the country’s main airport after the ancient warrior Alexander the Great. This move further aggravated relations between Athens and Skopje, as Alexander the Great is regarded as a Greek hero.

Imposing the Greek veto marked the end of any kind of reforms regarding further democratization or the rule of law in Macedonia. This is despite the fact that Gruevski came to power in 2006 with a pro-European and pro-western reformist agenda. Most Balkan leaders are in favour of EU reforms, which in many cases go against their personal wishes. Overall, they know that popular support for EU accession is quite strong among their populations, and it is subsequently political suicide not to back those reforms, at least publicly. The Greek veto effectively blocked any kind of enlargement regarding Macedonia in the EU, making it easy for Gruevski to transform into a hardline nationalist who even built strong ties with Moscow. From 2008 until the end of his tenure in 2017, Gruevski established a managed democracy. Greece’s veto can be seen as the cause of democratic backsliding in Macedonia. Athens lifted its veto only in 2018 after the reform-minded Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev reached an agreement.

No less than a year later, the country now known as North Macedonia was vetoed again, on this occasion by its eastern neighbour Bulgaria. Using the leverage of EU membership and the necessity that any further accession had to be agreed unanimously, in October 2019 Sofia announced it would veto any further move by Skopje regarding EU accession. Sofia wants Skopje to acknowledge in its constitution the belief that the Macedonian language and identity are a Bulgarian deviation. In other words, Bulgaria is attempting to hijack and reshape a national identity by utilizing the EU’s veto leverage over North Macedonia’s future engagement with the EU. This is all being done regarding matters that are most likely the main concern of historians and anthropologists.

Bulgaria’s veto, although it had nothing to do with the rule of law or democratization, was obviously due to the Bulgarian government’s populist motivations under Boyko Borisov. Borisov’s government saw its veto against North Macedonia as accomplishing two things. First, it helped appease its party-political grassroots, which are mainly dominated by Bulgarian nationalists who still harbour dreams of a “Bulgaria of Saint Stephen”. Treaty of San Stefano was signed in 1878 and created an autonomous Bulgaria that included the territories of modern North Macedonia, as well as extending from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea and even the Danube in the north. Secondly, it diverted attention away from domestic scandals. As a result, Brussels and other major European capitals have to concentrate on seeking a solution between Sofia and Skopje and not Borisov’s misdeeds of state capture, corruption and monopolies. Back in 2006, the US ambassador briefed the State Department in cables released by Wikileaks that Borisov had been directly linked to drug smuggling.

Continuing the Balkan playbook of hijacking the EU, Ukraine became the next victim of the EU veto. On this occasion, Hungary’s Viktor Orban vetoed the opening of negotiations with Ukraine and economic aid worth 50 billion euros. Under enormous pressure from Brussels and all other member states, Orban caved this time, agreed on 1 February to lift his veto and allow the EU to provide the aid to Ukraine. In contrast to the two aforementioned cases, the Budapest veto had absolutely nothing to do with Kyiv. In fact, it represents a power struggle between Budapest and Brussels, with the EU blocking various funds for Hungary on the grounds of democratic backsliding and constraints on freedom of speech and academia. Ukraine was the hostage of Orban’s daily clashes against what he refers to as the “deep state” of Brussels. Ukraine now has faced a massive Russian military attack for two years, and the opening of negotiations will boost Ukraine’s morale to continue the fight at a crucial time when the stalemate in the eastern regions benefits Russia. The financial package provided by Brussels should enable Ukraine to continue running the country and avoid bankruptcy.

Orban understands that European assistance is not only vital for Ukraine but also a public demonstration to the world that the EU and its member states are serious allies. Not providing the necessary economic assistance on time to Kyiv can be considered a public humiliation for the EU. Nowhere else was this expressed more explicitly than in North Korea delivering more and faster weapons to Russia than Europe is to Ukraine. What makes Ukraine’s case more difficult is that, unlike North Macedonia, the country is in the midst of a devastating war with Russia. The counter-offensive has suffered a setback, primarily due to the reorganization of the Russian army and the delayed arrival of western ammunition in Ukraine.

However, it will be hard for the EU to reach a common consensus on each issue, as the EU is neither a federal state nor simply an economic union. However, Brussels or the so-called Inner Six (Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries) can exercise strong pressure on Athens, Sofia or Budapest.

It has been demonstrated that the veto right is utilized as a bargaining chip in issues that are unrelated to the nature of what the EU stands for. Sentiment in one of the capitals can therefore in theory block the other 26 members from moving forward. Despite this, the EU power broker managed to overcome this regarding Spain and Kosovo. While Spain did not recognize Kosovo’s independence because this could embolden Catalan separatists, Madrid has not blocked visa liberalization regarding Kosovo and indeed has recognized the Kosovar passport without recognizing the country’s independence.

Although a legal mechanism to censor member states based on Article 7 exists, the EU may not legally be in a position to find a way to prevent a veto on new members, as accession must be agreed by all member states. Europe’s biggest contributors, especially Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, can exert pressure on other heads of state and government to lift their veto on unrelated matters. This was seen when the German chancellor on December 15th 2023 asked Orban to leave the room so that the other member states could agree to open negotiations with Kyiv. On the same line, German Chancellor Scholz, French President Macron and Italian Prime Minister Meloni, EU leaders von der Leyen, and Michel will hold bilateral meetings with Orban before the summit on February 1st to lift his veto. The EU has to adopt a mechanism with clear guidelines on when the veto can be used. This would be a mechanism that stipulates that a veto may only be applied to principles of democracy, the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

Rigels Lenja is a journalist and historian based in Munich, Germany. In January 2024 he submitted his PhD thesis for defence at the University of Munich. He mostly deals with topics such as nationalism, dictatorship, religion and EU enlargement.

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