The new European Commission has yet to be approved, but its president-elect has already locked horns with French President Emmanuel Macron over the future of EU enlargement.
On 18 October, EU leaders held a heated six-and-a-half-hour debate on whether to open accession talks with the two Western Balkans hopefuls. Mostly due to French and Dutch opposition, the issue was postponed for another EU summit, under a new Commission and a new Council Presidents.
Further, Macron made it clear in an interview for the Economist 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 reform of the EU could take ages, and many pundits say the momentum for advancing on the EU track, especially in the case of North Macedonia, would not happen again in the next ten years, if not longer.
In a speech on Friday (8 November) on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, von der Leyen hinted that Macron had opened the door to Russia and other global players in the Western Balkans. She argued that the EU had “asked a lot of North Macedonia and Albania, and they’ve fulfilled it all.
“Now we must be true to our word and start accession talks.”
She said EU leaders had delayed the prospect of membership for the Western Balkan countries as long ago as 2003.
In 2003, the so-called Thessaloniki Summit named the Western Balkan countries as “potential candidates” and said their future is in the EU.
“The point at that time was to anchor the European idea of peace in the region, which 20 years earlier had been rocked by bloody conflict,” von der Leyen added, with reference of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
“The history of the EU since 1989 has proven how much it pays when our union opens its heart, she said”
She warned that if Brussels does not offer a European perspective to the Western Balkan states, “others will fill the gap – China, Russia, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.”
On Monday, EURACTIV asked Dana Spinant, a spokesperson to von der Leyen, what was the President-elect’s plan, given the position of the French president.
She answered that von der Leyen was determined to work with her team “to improve the political conditions so that the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania tales place as early as possible during her mandate”.
The opening of negotiations is only the start of a process, which in the case of the latest EU member, Croatia, lasted eight years until the accession in 2013.
North Macedonia (then referred to as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), received candidate status in 2005, only one year after Croatia, but could not open accession talks because of a dispute over its name with Greece, which vetoed any progress. The veto was removed thanks to the so-called Prespa agreement, under which Skopje agreed to the new name.
Russian officials have said on the record that they could offer an alternative other than Euro-Atlantic integration to Skopje, to the Western Balkans, and to any country.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]