Visegrad 4, North Macedonia in last-ditch effort to change French enlargement veto

European Council President Donald Tusk speaks with North Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, during a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 16 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/VIRGINIA MAYO]

Officials from North Macedonia and the Visegrad Four nations attempted to rally the importance of enlargement on Wednesday evening (16 October), in a last ditch effort before today’s EU summit.

After France blocked the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania during an EU affairs minister’s meeting on Tuesday (15 October), the enlargement deadlock sets up a showdown between French President Emmanuel Macron and the rest of the bloc’s leaders.

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.

At the eve of the EU summit, several EU diplomats had called the French veto “a clear disappointment” for member states in favour of the opening and voiced concerns that it could mean “a major strategic mistake has been made”.

The Visegrad Four – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – have a joint position in strongly supporting the opening of EU accession negotiations by North Macedonia and Albania.

In a letter by the V4 countries written to European Council President Donald Tusk, seen by EURACTIV, the four countries jointly pushed him to unblock accession stalemate and accused French President Emmanuel Macron of  undermining European Commission President-designate Ursula von der Leyen’s “geopolitical Commission”.

“Despite the important advancements we have made together, some member states continue to obstruct the very opening of accession talks, although it is only the first step in the long and demanding accession negotiations,” they wrote.

“Further delay in making the positive decision will cause a serious deterioration of the instability in the region and will to a large extent limit our ability to take an active role in our own neighbourhood,” the V4 warned, calling for a “decisive discussion” between EU leaders during the summit.

Earlier on Wednesday, a diplomat from a Visegrad country recognised that the French opposition was unlikely to change, but said that now it would be up to Tusk to set the tone, hoping that the Council chief “will take over the show from Macron during the summit” and “act as the saviour”.

PR stunt

It is obvious that the Visegrad goup tries to capitalise on the enlargement dossier, in an effort to make it up for its negative stance on other policy topics, such as solidarity in sharing the refugee burden.

Pundits also recall that Hungary’s position on North Macedonia is ambiguous, to say the least. Viktor Orbán was in close relations and gave political asylum to Nikola Gruevski, the former PM of the country, whose VMRO-DPMNE party was a powerful detractor of the Prespa agreement.

Macedonia's ex-PM fled in Hungarian diplomatic car

Former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled the country to avoid prison, used a Hungarian diplomatic vehicle to escape through Albania, police in Tirana said on Thursday (15 November) after Budapest formally denied any involvement.

The European Commission earlier in May had recommended the Council should open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia after the two countries had delivered on reforms.

Meanwhile North Macedonia in particular has resolved a decade-long conflict with Greece over its name that had induced Athens to uphold its right to veto North Macedonia’s EU accession bid, while the name deal had cleared the way for NATO membership for the country, which will probably join the military alliance in December or early January.

The EU’s executive reasoned then it was wrong to add more conditions because both countries had met targets set by the EU member states.

“If our partners deliver, we have to deliver, and this is our justifiable expectation”, said EU’s enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn in a joint press with Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev, who had come to Brussels far last-ditch talks on Wednesday evening.

According to Hahn, huge majority of member states ask nothing more than the green light for opening accession negotiations, a signal of clear commitment to European path of North Macedonia.

“Respected European leaders, do not become our obstacles. I invite you to become our heroes. European path is our only path”, a disappointed Zaev said in Brussels, adding that in June his country was promised a positive decision will be made in October.

“There will be disappointment among citizens and in our parliament. Trust into EU could be put into question” if there is no green light during the summit, Zaev told reporters.

This attitude “could strengthen third parties in our region that would fill in the vacuum”, he added.

Macedonian officials repeatedly stated that the bottom line of such a decision would play into the hands of third parties in the Western Balkans, such as Russia and China, which already are heavily investing in the region.

Earlier on Wednesday, Dimitris Avramopoulus, the EU’s Commissioner for migration, warned against a “re-balkanisation” of the region if Albania and North Macedonia would be denied the opening of accession negotiations.

“After all that we have done, we are sure and convinced more than ever before that we should open the negotiations because we are ready, both politically and institutionally. Our citizens are also more than ready”, Zaev concluded.

One solution on the table is a possible decoupling of the two candidate countries, with green light to North Macedonia and a postponement for Albania, but an EU diplomats stressed this seemed “rather unlikely”.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Samuel Stolton]

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