EU faces rift over new members after French 'non'

Brussels (AFP) –


European Union members wrangled over the rules for joining their club on Tuesday, after France triggered anger by seeking to postpone bids from Albania and North Macedonia.

France's European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin, arrived in Brussels insisting Paris is not isolated in wanting to strengthen EU rules before admitting western Balkan candidates.

"The European perspective of the Western Balkans is not in question, it is wanted, it is supported," she said.

"What we put on the table today are political declarations of principle, which have now been put to the European Commission to work on between now and January 2020."

But a European diplomat, speaking after the talks, warned: "France's isolation, in particular over North Macedonia, remains obvious."

"A crushing majority of member states remains in favour of a rapid opening for membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"In particular, discussion on reforming the procedure should not be used to delay decisions or form an obstruction," after the closed-door talks.

Finnish minister Tytti Tuppurainen, whose country chairs the European Council of member states, said the French idea had not been considered in detail.

"We had a round table on the state of play, and of course we heard the French proposal... there were countries that welcomed it and there were countries that had concerns," she told reporters.

She said the future European Commission, which should take power next month, will be asked to draw up proposals to reform the membership application process.

"We didn't have a vote on the French proposal," Tuppurainen said. "Today we wanted to send a full commitment to the region and our full committment to the enlargement policy."

Nevertheless, a French diplomatic source insisted: "A step forward was made today towards reform of the enlargement process."

Vincenzo Amendola, Italy's minister for European affairs, said "we have no problem in discussing any paper" but "the central objective" must be to open membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

Six countries wrote a letter to the outgoing head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, vowing to "engage constructively in an effort to improve this process."

France saw this as an opening for debate on the process.

But Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia also said: "that the consolidation of Europe cannot be completed without the western Balkans."

And they urged members to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in March 2020.

- Balkan 'time bomb' -

This month French President Emmanuel Macron raised hackles in the region when, in an interview with the Economist, he explained his tough opposition.

He described Bosnia as a "ticking time bomb" threatened by Islamist fighters returning from Syria, and he said other EU members also want to reject Albania, but were hiding behind France.

"Ask them tomorrow whether they want to open the door to Albania. Half of them will say no," he said, conceding that by contrast North Macedonia "doesn't frighten anyone."

"But I don't want any further new members until we've reformed the European Union itself," he said, arguing for closer cooperation on, for example, banking and EU governance.

Italy's Amendola referred directly to the Macron interview after Tuesday's talks, saying pointedly: "To be a global power it is obvious that enlargement, the union of a superior force, is central."

The French "non paper" outlining proposed changes to the application procedure would see Balkan countries adopting some EU rules prior to their entry to the bloc's institutions.

The document suggests this would support efforts to improve rule of law standards and anti-corruption methods, but other members worry it would create a fringe of outsider, half-in half-out countries.

Juncker's European Commission and outgoing president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, protested the postponement of Skopje and Tirana's final membership talks, arguing they already meet EU criteria.

The western Balkan candidates -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia -- will meet EU leaders at a summit in Zagreb on May 6 and 7 next year.

Many in Brussels fear that if Paris or others continue to stall their ambitions, regional capitals may fall under greater Russian or Chinese influence.

And some could face internal political instability if pro-EU leaders are unable to deliver on promises of closer ties despite pushing Brussels-mandated reforms.

North Macedonia, for example, changed its name from simply Macedonia to appease Greek nationalist concerns.

EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said Brussels has received no formal request to change the procedure.