Divided Europe deals major blow to North Macedonia’s EU accession hopes

Commissioner Jonahhes Hahn [L] and Romanian minister George Ciamba at presser, on 18 June 2019. [Council newsroom]

An EU ministerial meeting on Tuesday (18 June) ended up as a major disappointment for North Macedonia, which had nurtured hopes that its historic agreement with Greece  on the country’s name would be rewarded with an EU accession ticket.

EU ministers who met at the General Affairs Council yesterday in Luxembourg, discussed the possible accession of Albania and North Macedonia to the EU.

But they finally decided to postpone the decision of opening talks to October 2019, dealing a major blow to both countries’ EU accession hopes.

Albania and North Macedonia had hoped that European ministers would give them the go-ahead at this meeting, in line with a European Commission recommendation issued on 29 May.

A positive decision would have opened the way for EU accession talks to be formally approved during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday.

Commission recommends opening accession talks with Albania, North Macedonia

The European Commission recommended on Wednesday (29 May) opening accession talks with two Western Balkan countries, Albania and North Macedonia, saying they had “embraced the opportunity and delivered on reforms”. But this will need to be approved by the member states.

“In …

On behalf of the Romanian EU presidency, the minister for European affairs George Ciamba said before the meeting that his country had done a lot to promote the enlargement process.

“Romania is now trying to find the way, that would be engaging, constructive and in the same time would keep the strategic balance and strategic importance of the Western Balkan for Europe. The stability of the region is a strategic interest of the Union,” Ciamba said.

The Czech Minister of Foreign affairs Tomáš Petříček also spoke strongly in favour of opening accession talks with the two Western Balkan countries. “It is necessary to send a clear message that these two countries did a plenty of reforms and fulfilled a lot of conditions demanded by the EU. Now it is our turn to keep with the promise and start with the accession talks,” said Petříček before the final session in Luxembourg.

North Macedonia made a giant leap towards EU accession when it resolved a 27-year-long dispute with Greece over its name. The so-called Prespa agreement of June 1018 opened the way for NATO and EU membership talks, which until then had been blocked by Greece.

Noting that the Council meeting took place on the first anniversary of the Prespa agreement, EU Foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said the time had come for the EU to deliver on North Macedonia’s accession hopes.

Tsipras and Zaev seal historic deal to end name dispute

Greece and Macedonia on Sunday (17 June) signed a historic preliminary agreement to rename the small Balkan nation the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a row that has poisoned relations between the two neighbours since 1991.

But the final statement agreed by the General Affairs Council fell short of making any promises.

“The Council strongly welcomes the historic Prespa Agreement, which represents a significant achievement, setting a positive example for the region and beyond. It commends the courage and determination of the parties involved,” the Council conclusions say.

The Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations with Bulgaria, signed by Skopje before the Prespa agreement, was also welcomed by the Council.

In the case of Albania, expectations about opening accession talks were even lower.

North Macedonia nears accession talks, Albania falling behind

Member states will on Tuesday (18 June) postpone a decision on opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, most likely until September, as almost all capitals are prepared to green light Skopje while Tirana still remains a ‘no-go’ for a few, EU officials and diplomats told EURACTIV.

The Council will take the decision about Albania’s EU accession by October. One of the reasons is the internal political infighting in this country, which some interpret as a sign of immaturity in terms of democratic standards.

Police, protesters clash in Albania, US condemns the violence

Police in the Albanian capital Tirana on Sunday (2 June) fired tear gas and water canon at demonstrators demanding the resignation of socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama.

“We cannot ignore the domestic political situation and it is influencing the assessing of some member states. We hope that the period till October can change their opinion,” commented Ciamba.

“This is also a kind of wake-up call for everybody in Albania, government and also opposition,” added Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner responsible for accession negotiations.

At the Council meeting, the Netherlands confirmed its stance as the staunchest opponent of EU enlargement. The Dutch parliament has serious doubts about Albania’s EU accession, because of corruption and organised crime there. France, for its part, argues that the EU should first strengthen its institutions and decision-making before launching any further enlargements.

But Hahn disputed France’s stance, claiming that Europe’s internal cohesion and enlargement were not separate processes “which should take place one after the other”. According to him,  both can happen in parallel.

The Council, meanwhile, appreciated progress made by Albania and North Macedonia in reforming their judiciary, fighting against corruption and tackling organised crime, as well as money laundering.

Cyprus, for its part, warned it would use its veto against any enlargement decision unless the EU takes action against Turkey, which is currently drilling for offshore gas in its economic zone.

Nicosia’s stance was criticised by Italian foreign minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi who told Reuters that issues raised by Cyprus “have nothing to do with enlargement.”

Erdogan says drilling off Cyprus to continue despite warning

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday (16 June) said Turkey would not back down from gas exploration in Cyprus after southern European leaders urged Ankara to stop.

At the end of the day, the Council meeting only served to entrench divisions among EU member states about the bloc’s enlargement to Western Balkan countries.

With their EU accession process on hold, Western Balkan countries have turned to other foreign players such as Russia, Turkey, and China, which have made growing investments in the region.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon]

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