BREXIT preoccupies so much of public life in Scotland and the UK that many of the major questions facing Europe often go relatively unnoticed. The EU is currently grappling with a significant disagreement over enlargement which could have wide implications for its future.

Enlargement was on the agenda at last month’s European Council meeting – for North Macedonia and Albania. The European Commission recommended opening accession negotiations with both countries but it is up to the member states to give the green light. To substantial surprise, the Council postponed a formal decision, effectively blocking negotiations for now.

Enlargement is one of the areas in EU policy-making where unanimity is still required. France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed starting talks with Albania. Yet it is on North Macedonia, whose negotiations France blocked single-handedly, where the greatest consternation arose. North Macedonia recently resolved its

long-running name dispute with Greece through the Prespa Agreement, which took effect this February. The clear mood music from Brussels beforehand was that solving this issue would pave the way for accession talks.

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Incidentally, the UK was once a major voice on enlargement and supported the candidacies of the Western Balkan states. Now, the UK’s political capital in the EU is non-existent and it is in no position to shape EU decisions.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski before a meeting as part at the Paris Peace ForumJean-Claude Juncker

In fact, a latent hostility to expanding the EU’s membership is not new. When Jean-Claude Juncker became Commission president in 2014, he summarily declared that no country would join the EU during his term of office. While no candidate was ready anyway, it was not a positive message.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of member states wanted to open talks with North Macedonia in particular.

Germany has been perhaps the most vocal proponent, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, foreign minister Heiko Maas and Europe minister Michael Roth all making plain their desire to move forward, and to uphold the EU’s commitments.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been unapologetic about wielding the veto. His argument is that the EU needs to reform itself before taking on any new members. As he elaborated in a recent interview with The Economist, he seems to think enlargement would impede his goal of making the EU more strategic.

That seems a strange line of reasoning. Opening accession negotiations is completely different from a country being on the point of joining the EU. Indeed, enlargement has often served as the impetus for EU institutional reform, not a block on it. The EU can also multitask – that is how it has always worked.

If the EU is going to be more geopolitical and strategic, it is hardly sensible to put the brakes on the aspirations of the countries of the Western Balkans to join the EU. Instead, the outcome of the European Council sends a very negative signal to the region and the wider European neighbourhood.

The EU is not the only geopolitical actor in the Western Balkans. Russia has continued its hybrid efforts to build further influence in the region – and it has long opposed the expansion of both the EU and Nato. Albania has been a member of Nato since 2009. With its name dispute resolved, North Macedonia is in the process of joining the alliance.

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Russia also opposed the Prespa Agreement and would actively support North Macedonia turning away from the EU. While it will still pursue EU membership for now, North Macedonia’s current trajectory will not be sustainable without the EU moving the accession process to the next step.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski before a meeting as part at the Paris Peace ForumEmmanuel Macron

Enlargement has rightly been seen as one of the EU’s most successful endeavours. The prospect and eventual attainment of EU membership has served as a stabilising and motivating factor for European countries reclaiming democracy and seeking partnership.

The most important aspect of the journey is to maintain the hope of future membership for current and potential candidate countries. Even where candidates have many reforms left to undertake and accession is years away, that hope can be sustaining.

Postponing membership negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania, when both countries are seemingly ready, diminishes the hope and damages the EU’s standing.

The EU could yet move the process forward, perhaps at the March 2020 European Council or the EU-Western Balkans Summit in May 2020 in Zagreb, during Croatia’s first EU Council presidency.

A footnote about Scotland: how does this enlargement debate relate to an independent Scotland joining the EU? In brief, it should not have a major impact. Scotland would be in a completely different position to other candidates, as a Western European state previously in the EU. However, the debate does underline that Scotland would not be able to take anything for granted and would have to build good relationships with all Member States early on.

Whenever the EU gets the candidacies of North Macedonia and Albania back on track, it will already have paid a normative cost to its credibility. Macron may be right that the EU needs more strategy – but it needs more solidarity too.

Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, a political insights company in Edinburgh.