France halts EU enlargement

Finland's Tytti Tuppurainen [L} and France's Amélie de Montchalin [R] [Council newsroom]

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.

EU ministers who met at the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg discussed the opening of the accession talks to the EU with Albania and North Macedonia. A similar gathering in June decided to postpone the decision for October.

This meeting, however, was the last under the Juncker commission and was seen as make-or-break, particularly after the German Bundestag backed the opening of talks in September.

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

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.

Only France blocked North Macedonia, while the Netherlands and Denmark backed Skopje but opposed Tirana’s bid. Finland proposed Albania’s case to be separated from that of North Macedonia, but France disagreed.

Kick the can to the EU summit

Finnish Foreign Minister Tytti Tuppurainen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said that in the absence of agreement, the issue was being put on the summit agenda.

EU leaders will come to Brussels on Thursday and Friday already with an awkward agenda, including how to avoid a hard Brexit and the response to the Turkish incursion in Syria.

French European Affairs Minister Amélie de Montchalin said her country was against opening accession talks for the two Western Balkan countries.

She explained that more reforms are needed in both countries, but also made clear that bigger issues had to be addressed, including a deep reform of the way the Commission conducts the negotiations and addressing the issue of brain drain in the respective countries.

Brain drain is indeed a problem, but the issue has not been addressed in the case of the accession process of the new EU members, or of Serbia and Montenegro, the two Western Balkans countries already in the process of accession talks.

‘Credibility’

De Montchalin said this was about “credibility”: criteria had been set in 2018 and these should be respected, she insisted. In the case of North Macedonia, she specified the reform of the special prosecutor office, which in her words has not been completed.

Critics of the French position say it’s the EU who loses credibility, in particular by not delivering on promises made to North Macedonia over the historic Prespa agreement.

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.

In Paris, a French presidency official said Macron’s government would not agree to open the talks now.

“These countries will be part of the European Union one day… but it is too early to open the legal process towards enlargement,” the official said.

Clash with Berlin?

In Berlin, a government official said the opening of accession talks was a priority for Germany, which will hold its annual summit with France on Wednesday.

“Chancellor Angel Merkel will raise the issue with Macron on Wednesday,” the official said, adding that she would also raise the matter at a summit of all 28 national leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. “It is a… strategic question for the EU.”

An insider told EURACTIV that France could change its position at the summit only in the hypothetical scenario of a major trade-off, such as Germany taking on board French ideas for the reform of the eurozone.

Macron is already thinking about the presidential elections of 2022. He is also anxious not to provoke Russia, who frowns at the EU accession of territories where it has kept an influence, such as Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. Montenegro has joined NATO. Macedonia hopes to be next in early 2020, while Serbia has no plans to join the Atlantic alliance.

Most other EU countries vented frustration with the French position.

Opening talks is an important milestone, but the negotiations process lasts several years and member countries can make use of their veto in case the candidate country doesn’t deliver on reforms and commitments.

Geopolitical considerations

Many countries believe that opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is of utmost importance, given the difficult geopolitical situation.

Would the reformist government of Zoran Zaev be destabilised by the setback, this could only profit to the opposition VMRO-DPMNE, which may be tempted to seek rapprochement with Russia instead. In the case of Albania, the feeling of rejection could boost forces with other plans, such as the creation of a Greater Albania.

The strongest backers of future EU enlargement are the new members of the Union.

Bulgaria still has issues with North Macedonia over the interpretation of recent history, but Sofia decided to support Skopje at this stage and use its veto if the neighbouring country decides to stop delivering on a bilateral treaty aimed at solving the issues.

“It’s very important to give a political signal that enlargement is not dead,” said George Ciamba, Romania’s EU minister.

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