Metternich is supposed to have once said that ‘Asia begins at the Landstrasse’ (or ‘the Balkans begin at the Rennweg’). The idea that the Balkan peninsula and its patchwork of nations are somehow not part of Europe lives on. Last month, Emmanuel Macron vetoed the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

Angela Merkel said the EU should ‘keep its promises’ and begin the negotiations. Jean-Claude Juncker described the French president’s irresponsible decision as a ‘historic mistake’. For once, the phrase may be an understatement. Whatever progress has been made in the Balkans in recent decades, following years of war, turmoil and clashing nationalisms, was explicitly tied to a promise that eventually these countries would join the European Union. In order to pander to a domestic audience that largely disapproves of his record in office, Macron broke this promise.

The North Macedonian prime minister, Zoran Zaev, was immediately forced to call early elections. He had invested a huge amount of political capital in the Prespa Agreement with Greece: he agreed to change his country’s name, and Athens in exchange agreed to lift its veto, opening a path to Nato and EU membership.

Zaev’s main offer to voters had been to bring North Macedonia into Europe and rid it of corruption. Macron has handed a precious gift to his opponents, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, who are leading the polls. If they come to power, an end to the Prespa deal is a real possibility. It would be welcomed by nationalists in Greece, too, some of whom are now in government in Athens. With the Balkans occupying a central position in the global far-right imaginary, a strengthening of nationalisms in the region can’t be anything but bad news.

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, has said that the EU’s refusal to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania justifies his policy of forging closer ties with China and Russia. Macron told the Economist last week that ‘what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato’. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán seized on the comments. ‘In 1999 we thought Nato could secure us,’ he said today. ‘But now, even President Macron said Nato is “brain dead”. We see that neighbours are buying weapons, we need to develop our army more.’

This week the president of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski, was in France for the Paris Peace Forum. He met with Macron for ‘short but very dynamic’ talks, he said, and the French president ‘asssured’ him that they are facing ‘only a technical delay’ while the EU thinks about ‘revising the methodology for accession talks’. He expects a decision after the EU Council meeting at the end of March next year. North Macedonia’s elections are scheduled for 12 April.