Emmanuel Macron may have won the French presidency by promising to defeat populism, but these days many in the Balkans call him "the European Trump". The reason for this unlikely comparison is the French president's resolute opposition to the enlargement of the European Union.
Last week at a Brussels summit, Macron vetoed the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The French leader was alone in rejecting North Macedonia and was supported only by the leaders of Denmark and the Netherlands in refusing Albania.
Macron defended his decision - which was immediately and publicly dubbed a "historic mistake" by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker - by arguing that the EU should focus on getting its own house in order before considering new members.
"This is a dispute about vision," Macron said. "The enlargement rules need reform."
For the French president, the dispute is indeed about vision.
In France, there is a venerable tradition of conceiving Europe in terms of concentric circles that dates back to the presidency of Francois Mitterrand. In this vision, which Macron clearly shares, Eastern Europeans are welcome to do business and cooperate with the EU, but they do not belong to the "truly European" inner sanctum.
In the early 1990s, faced with demands from the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and other former communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe to "return to Europe", Mitterrand came up with a blueprint for Europe which placed France at the core of a small and closely integrated Western-European-Union that would only have a loose, economy-based association with its eastern neighbours.
In the end, Mitterrand's wish to keep Central and Eastern European nations outside of the European Union was ignored by the bloc's other founding members. As a result, the EU has expanded and let a number of countries into the Eurozone and the border-free Schengen area. The latest addition was Croatia, which recently received greenlight from the European Commission to join Schengen.
But Britain's decision to leave the European bloc presented an opportunity for France to adapt Mitterrand's blueprint for the 21st century. In a series of speeches, Macron laid out this vision, explaining that he would like to construct a three-tier Europe: An inner circle made up of a palpably strengthened Eurozone, a second circle that consists of EU members in a strong single market and a much-less-integrated outer circle that is "a union of values, democratic principles and economic freedoms", which could potentially one day include Russia and Turkey.
The reason for Macron's apparent mission to bring the EU's enlargement to an end is simple: He believes its expansion has failed. Instead of thriving young democracies that could help to speed up European integration, the EU ended up with Victor Orban's Hungary and a Poland that just elected the populist Law and Justice Party for another term.
So, as far as Macron is concerned, North Macedonia and Albania should continue to hang out in the waiting room. And the likes of Hungary, Poland and Romania should stay outside of the EU vanguard clustered around the eurozone. Enlargement is dead. Long live the lean and mean EU, with Germany as the economic powerhouse and Macron's France as the strategic leader.
By blocking the membership bids of North Macedonia and Albania, Macron took the first step towards achieving this vision. His move, however, already brought into question the future of the EU and the stability of the continent.
Greece and Macedonia resolved a 27-year-old dispute over the latter's name in 2018 by signing a landmark agreement, known as Prespa, that led to Macedonia changing its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. The deal obliged Athens to stop blocking Macedonia from NATO and to allow it to start EU accession talks. Skopje soon signed an accord to join NATO and geared up to start negotiations with the EU. Brussels was so pleased with the deal that it deemed it a "crown achievement".
Macron's "non" to North Macedonia's accession to the EU, however, threw a spanner in the works.
Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner who has led efforts to push both North Macedonia and Albania to reform to be eligible for EU accession, said Macron has damaged the bloc's credibility "not only in the Western Balkans but beyond".
"To refuse acknowledgement of proven progress will have negative consequences, including the risk of destabilisation of the Western Balkans, with full impact on the EU," he added.
The North Macedonian foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, meanwhile, accused the EU of being dishonest. "The least that the EU owes the region is to be straightforward with us," he said. "If there is no more consensus on the European future of the Western Balkans ... the citizens deserve to know."
A day later, the country's prime minister, Zoran Zaev, called for early elections. It is a gamble that might backfire. The conservative-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party will be campaigning on the promise to revise the Prespa Agreement with Greece and, following the EU's unexpected snub, it may well succeed in seizing power. Of course, it will not be easy for any future government to overturn the constitutional changes that came with the deal between Skopje and Athens. Nevertheless, Macron's decision undoubtedly put a staunchly pro-European nation on a path away from Brussels. The fact that the EU has snubbed North Macedonia while continuing its negotiations with Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia, which is moving closer by the day to Russia and China, adds insult to injury.
Of course, it is too early to say Macron killed the EU as we know it. Many EU members are still not ready to give up on the enlargement dream. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would propose that accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia restart in November. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel also vowed not to let the matter drop, saying: "We'll see how to get back to this debate later."
France will not give in easily to pressure from the rest of the EU, but it can still be convinced with some quid pro quo. The EU may agree to decouple North Macedonia and Albania and offer to move forward only with the former. It may also offer to significantly toughen up the accession criteria. After all, one timeless truth about the EU is its members' collective ability to muddle through. We will likely see a fair bit of that in the coming months.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.