All eyes on France after inconclusive enlargement summit debate

French President Emmanuel Macron with his delegation after the dinner. [Council newsroom]

After a long night of inconclusive discussions, EU heads of state are set to return to the EU enlargement issue today (18 October). All eyes are on France, as Emmanuel Macron’s position has so far been the major stumbling block for opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

EU leaders finished the first day of the summit without adopting conclusions on enlargement, a topic discussed during the dinner. Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne said upon leaving the European Council building after a six-and-a-half hour discussion that although no conclusions had been adopted, talks on enlargement could be resumed the next morning.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said EU leaders would rethink the matter at a subsequent summit.

EU enlargement turned out to be the main topic of the summit, after the Brexit deal, negotiated across the street in the Commission building, was agreed just in time before the start of the summit.

Barnier: 'School of patience' delivers new Brexit deal

EU and UK negotiators agreed a new Brexit deal on Thursday (17 October), prompting the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to declare: “Brexit is a school of patience”.

Both the European Commission and the European Parliament recommend opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. North Macedonia in particular benefits from the support of all member states except France, for its historic decision to solve its disputes with Greece, including by changing its constitution. In the case of Albania, the Netherlands, Denmark and also reportedly Spain, are of the opinion that opening negotiations is premature, because of slow progress in reforms in the country.

The French position is not a surprise. For obvious internal policy reasons, the French leadership doesn’t want to give ammunition to the leader of Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen to claim that such policies take jobs from the French.

Paris is also reluctant to open the door to new members while problems with corruption or rule of law in new members such as Poland, Hungary and Romania erode EU unity.

France wants the Commission to deeply reform the way of conducting accession negotiations. Critics ask why Macron didn’t raise this question one year ago, but only at what seems to be a pretext to deny the opening of accession talks with Skopje and Tirana.

The potential rift already surfaced earlier in the week when France had blocked the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania during an EU affairs minister’s meeting.

France halts EU enlargement

France blocked the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia on Tuesday (15 October), despite the promise made by the EU to Skopje that its historic name deal with Greece, the Prespa agreement, would earn it a ticket to EU membership negotiations.

Decoupling

North Macedonia could benefit from a go-ahead in the case member countries agree to de-couple it from Albania.

The Netherlands, Spain and Denmark were keen on a draft containing the idea of decoupling both member states from each other and possibly going ahead with North Macedonia only, which already then was slashed down as ‘very unlikely’ as Italy and Germany, but first and foremost, France opposed such a solution.

Both Italy and Germany are in favour of opening the talks, but their opposition to de-coupling doesn’t help Skopje.

Arriving at the summit, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov warned that the failure to decide to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania would be a historic mistake. Bulgaria decided to back the opening of accession talks, and solve various disagreement as talks progress.

“There are at least 70 occasions when we could stop them”, Borissov told journalists, referring to the right of veto every member state can use all over the accession talks decision-making.

‘You’re not good’

Preventing the start of the negotiations talks, according to Borissov, would be a “heavy blow for the peoples of these countries”, adding: “It’s like telling them – you’re not good. And I’m sure in the next 15 years there would not be a similar momentum”.

Borissov said that the setback with the rejection by the European Parliament of three commissioners has exacerbated the political situations in the EU, and that the different political families were waging wars between themselves.

“It will be a major mistake”, he repeated, adding: “Then we should not be surprised if there would be more jihadists coming along, or increased influence [in the region] by Turkey, by Russia, by China or somebody else. If we are not interested in them [North Macedonia and Albania], somebody else will be. There will be no vacuum. But this is not good for Bulgaria”, he said.

Borissov’s brash comments to the press at EU summit offer an insight into the tone of discussions at the summit table, which are confidential. The Bulgarian Prime Minister is known for rehearsing with journalists what he intends to say.

Other leaders were more diplomatic, but the message remains the same.

“I did everything I could to support North Macedonia and Albania, but we still have some members [that are] sceptical on the accession talks,” European Council President Donald Tusk told North Macedonian media after the discussion was broken off.

According to an EU source, when Tusk put enlargement at the summit agenda “not everybody was happy about that”.

“There is a certain disappointment. We must admit we failed to reach consensus because three states refused to invite both countries to start negotiations,” Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda told reporters after the protracted dinner.

“Everybody admits that North Macedonia did a lot: it changed its country’s name, it changed its constitution and did everything to receive an invitation, so I think the absence of decision will have serious political consequences,” Nauseda said.

Supporters of North Macedonia and Albania hope that at least a text would be adopted with a clear political message in favour of a future and certain accession, a diplomatic source told EURACTIV, as the night proceeded.

France, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark are reportedly considering a compromise to push talks back to April 2020 or the announced EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb next May, which would open a window for a potential reform of the enlargement process argued for by France.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

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