France Blocks EU Push to Open Membership Talks With Balkan States

Jonathan Stearns

(Bloomberg) -- France blocked a European Union drive to start membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, dismissing German-led warnings that political stability in the Balkans could be at stake.

At a meeting of EU general affairs ministers on Tuesday, the French government shot down a plan to give the two countries a target date next year for beginning entry talks, according to two officials familiar with discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The move pushes the whole controversy onto the already-crowded agenda of an Oct. 17-18 EU summit in Brussels, where Brexit and Syria will also be discussed.

The deadlock at the ministerial gathering in Luxembourg resulted from a French argument, backed in part by the Netherlands, that no date should be set for opening accession deliberations with North Macedonia and Albania until the EU revamps its whole approach to enlargement. At issue is whether the two countries adhere to EU norms on the rule of law, an area where some newer member nations have been accused of backsliding.

“We clearly aren’t in a position today to stand by what we have repeatedly promised, namely the taking up of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania,” German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth told reporters in Luxembourg. “We are very disappointed.”

EU Infighting

North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, traveled to Brussels Tuesday for “a last attempt to lobby for an accesstion-talk date,” according to Telma TV. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said his country would continue to pursue reforms even if the European Council doesn’t decide to open talks, the BalkanWeb news site reported.

”For us Europe is a strong relationship,” Rama said. “We are only seeking to open the negotiations, further showing that we want to become part of the EU.”

The infighting among EU governments reflects two competing political views: German-backed arguments that offering more Balkan countries the hope of joining the world’s biggest trading club strengthens European geopolitical stability and French-led calls for deeper integration of the bloc before any further expansion.

Both Albania and North Macedonia have been lobbying to open accession talks, with the latter changing its name to resolve a decades-long dispute with Greece. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has said both countries have made enough progress in aligning their judicial standards to merit opening of negotiations.

Broader Picture

Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner in charge of enlargement policy, predicted that EU national government heads would reach an agreement on Thursday or Friday that eluded their general-affairs ministers.

“It am still confident the leaders will rectify the decision -- or non-decision -- of today,” Hahn, who comes from Austria, told reporters after the Luxembourg meeting. “I hope our leaders are able to see the broader picture.”

The French-German split is itself a symptom of EU successes and failures over the past two decades.

On the one hand, the bloc orchestrated a “big-bang” enlargement in 2004 by adding ex-communist nations in eastern Europe. On the other, a Greece-triggered debt crisis that almost broke apart the euro and a rise in euroskeptic political forces that helped lead to the U.K.’s Brexit decision have stoked concerns about letting in more poorer nations.

Three other Balkan countries have already started membership negotiations: Serbia in 2014, Montenegro in 2012 and Turkey in 2005.

(Updates with comments from Balkan leaders in fifth, sixth paragraphs.)

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