Athens takes lead to ensure Western Balkans EU path

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (L) and North Macedonia's Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov (C) at the start of a breakfast meeting organized by the Greek delegation to focus on North Macedonia and Albania, ahead of a EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, Belgium, 09 December 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The Greek government is determined to take all necessary initiatives to ensure that the Western Balkan region’s EU ambition will become a reality soon, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias has said.

Dendias organised a breakfast meeting in Brussels on Monday (9 December), which was attended by more than twenty EU counterparts, but also Albania’s Gent Cakaj and North Macedonia’s Nikola Dimitrov.

“It’s been a useful first opportunity for the next steps after the October Council,” Dendias said, refererring to the EU summit which failed to give the green light to Albania and North Macedonia to open EU accession talks. But he stressed there is a need to keep the two countries’ European perspective on top of the agenda.

“Greece is the oldest EU country in the region. It is a key factor in the stability and promotion of cooperation and will continue to take concrete initiatives in this direction,” Dendias added, emphasising that the objective is a positive result “possibly next March”.

At the October Council, France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed the start of EU accession talks with Tirana and Skopje.

In a subsequent interview with Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that the EU needed to reform its membership procedures, which he said were “no longer fit for purpose”.

“I don’t want any further new members until we’ve reformed the European Union itself,” he said in the interview. “In my opinion, that’s an honest and indispensable prerequisite.” The informal French proposal envisages seven points of gradual convergence – from the rule of law to education, economy and internal market.

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The main opposition in October was basically against Tirana and not Skopje.

However, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV that in Monday’s meeting, the Netherlands and Denmark took a step back in their objections against Albania. The same sources said it is highly likely that an additional clause to the case of Albania will be added in order to unlock the EU accession talks.

Asked if there is a possibility to “decouple” those two countries in order to open North Macedonia’s EU talks, while addressing Albania at a later stage, a diplomat said this possibility is always an option but it would not be helpful for any EU member states or the wider Balkan region.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did not attend the meeting and, according to sources, was not scheduled to attend the foreign affairs council later today.

North Macedonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Nikolai Dimitrov said his country would not fall into the “trap of victimisation” or blame anyone.

“We will continue to produce positive news, both in the reforms back home and in good relations with all our neighbors, and we will make it impossible for all member states to say no again in the coming months,” he added.

Referring to the French proposals to reform the EU accession process, Bulgarian foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva said most ministers underlined that they were good proposals but there are also some disagreements that need further talks.

However, she underlined that the accession negotiations did not need to be postponed as the EU negotiates the accession framework.

“These processes can be parallel. We do not have to wait for the debate on the new framework to be completed,” she said.

Croatia’s EU presidency plans a major EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May and proponents of enlargement believe the process would be unlocked  either then, or before the summit, possibly at an EU Council in March.

Greece is one of the main advocates of the bloc’s enlargement to the Western Balkans. In 2003, it organised a Thessaloniki summit in which EU leaders agreed on giving the region a clear European perspective. However, since then, only Croatia has managed to join the EU  while Serbia and Montenegro have started accession talks.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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