France, Denmark and Netherlands block EU Membership Talks for Albania and North Macedonia

EU Council, Brussels
EU Council meeting in Brussels

Tirana, Albania | 18 Oct 2019 (Tirana Echo) – A group of EU member states have dashed hopes for EU membership for both Albania and North Macedonia, angering the Balkan hopefuls and several EU officials in Brussels.

France, Denmark and the Netherlands bunkered together against the majority of member states including Germany in refusing to open accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia, arguing the two Balkan nations need more time to get ready and tackle corruption at home.

The move has angered senior officials at the European Commission which had earlier recommended the green light for both countries, as well as officials at the European Parliament which had already expressed its support for the two small countries.

During the latest EU Summit, leaders failed to find consensus after hours of heated debates, dashing the hopes of both social-democratic governments in Tirana and in Skopje.

Denmark and Netherlands openly refused opening talks for Albania while France insisted that North Macedonia should not be treated differently from its neighbor. The French refusal to ‘decouple’ the two countries was particularly felt bitterly in Skopje, where the government of PM Zoran Zaev has recently struck a milestone deal with Greece over its 28-year name dispute, ultimately resulting in the small Balkan country changing its name from Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was “a major historic mistake” while EU Council President Donald Tusk echoed that “It’s not a failure, it’s a mistake. I feel really embarrassed.”

In a similar reaction, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, did not hide his dissapointment with what he called a break of EU commitment to Western Balkans countries.

Hahn wrote in a tweet that: “To refuse acknowledgement of proven progress will have negative consequences, including the risk of destabilisation of the Western Balkans, with full impact on the EU.

Last year, the European Commission begun setting the path towards opening accession talks for both Balkan hopefuls by launching an analytical preliminary process.

Responding to widespread anger, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a press conference in Brussels that the accession process had to be reformed.

The enlargement process needs to be reformed. We must not open accession talks with North Macedonia before Albania – there must be a majority for talks with both, together. We should do more to help those countries develop, not just make pledges” – said Macron.

Earlier in May, the European Commission had reported to member states that both Albania and North Macedonia had achieved sufficient progress as ‘candidate countries’ in order to open accession talks with the union. The Commission report was based on evaluations of each country’s credentials in pushing forward with important reforms in the economic area, anti-corruption efforts, strengthening of the rule of law and human rights.

Before starting membership talks, potential new members of the bloc must demonstrate a range of reforms in areas such as economic policy, human rights, anti-corruption measures and the rule of law. The European Commission said in May that Albania and North Macedonia had both made sufficient progress. Both countries have official “candidate” status in their EU membership bids.

However, during the press conference, President Macron acknowledged that progress had been made but said some areas, such as immigration, needed more work, pointing out that French citizens remain concerned about illegal migration from Balkan countries to EU states. Macron has also hinted that the accession process needs more transparency and more merit-based assessment procedures for each country.

In a separate press conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was “disappointment” over the decision but the matter would be revisited before a summit on the Western Balkans early next year.

France wishes to make the accession process more transparent. There are different assessments of what remains for them to do. Some say the countries haven’t done enough. North Macedonia has done a considerable amount. Albania has also achieved a lot, but not enough for EU unanimity.” – said Merkel.

North Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov called on the EU to be honest about the prospects for future membership. “The least that the European Union owes the region is to be straightforward with us. If there is no more consensus on the European future of the Western Balkans, the citizens deserve to know.” he said. “

Following the statements, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who described the decision as a “historic error”, said he would propose that accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia restart in November. Additionally, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel also promised not to let the matter drop, saying: “We’ll see how to get back to this debate later.”

However, there’s is little hope the block will consider opening its doors any time soon.

In a status on Facebook following the decision, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama quoted the renowned Mexican writer Octavio Paz that “the only thing uniting Europe today is its indifference toward its fate.”

The latest decision to block EU hopes for both Albania and North Macedonia is largely seen as a failure of outgoing EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and the European Commission representatives who failed to make a strong enough case to skeptical member states.

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