EU fails to agree on talks with Albania, North Macedonia

The deadlock results from France opposition to bloc's enlargement

Photo: European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn

European Union ministers failed on Tuesday to reach a consensus on whether to open membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, due to France, which took an opposing stance, dismissing German-led warnings that political stability in the Balkans could be at stake. The move pushes the whole controversy onto the already-crowded agenda of an 17-18 October EU summit in Brussels, where Brexit and Syria will also be discussed.

"It was not a moment of glory for Europe," Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters in Luxembourg after taking part in a meeting of European affairs ministers.

Apologising to the citizens of the two Balkans hopefuls, Hahn said that "the overwhelming majority" of EU member countries supported the European Commission's recommendation to start talks with Albania and North Macedonia. He didn't name the countries that oppose the move, but Finnish European Affairs Minister Tytti Tuppurainen, who was chairing the talks because her country holds the EU's rotating presidency, noted that there was "one member state particularly against."

"Unfortunately today the Council was not able to reach a unanimous decision. I regret that," she said.

Both Albania and North Macedonia have been lobbying to open accession talks, with the latter changing its name last year 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. But shortly after the meeting it was made clear that France was the country that blocked North Macedonia, while the Netherlands and Denmark backed Skopje but opposed Tirana’s bid. Meanhwile, Finland proposed Albania’s case to be separated from that of North Macedonia, but France disagreed.

The deadlock at the ministerial gathering in Luxembourg now reflects two competing political views that does not have to do much with the candidate member states themselves: 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.

The constant expansion of the EU over the years has complicated decision-making in the world's biggest trade bloc, and a kind of "enlargement fatigue" had set in. It comes after the bloc orchestrated a “big-bang” enlargement in 2004 by adding ex-communist nations in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, a Greece-triggered debt crisis almost broke apart the euro and led to a rise in euroskeptic political forces that helped lead to the UK’s Brexit decision have stoked concerns about letting in more poorer nations.

As a result, on taking up his post as commission president in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker said no countries would join the EU during his term, which is due to end on 31 October. Still, three other Balkan countries have already started membership negotiations: Serbia in 2014, Montenegro in 2012 and Turkey in 2005.

Yet. the prospect of EU membership has been a powerful force for reforms in the volatile Balkans since the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into war in the early 1990s.

"Failure to recognize and respond to objective progress would damage the European Union's credibility," EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini warned in May, adding that it could also "undermine stability and seriously discourage further reforms."

Her warning came just after Serbia put its troops on full alert after heavily armed Kosovo police fired tear gas and arrested about two dozen people in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo in what they called an anti-organized crime operation. EU-backed talks between the two on normalising relations are also on hold.

Italy's European Affairs Minister, Vincenzo Amendola, said that opening talks "obviously doesn't mean an immediate enlargement, but it gives the possible to Europe to reinforce itself in southeastern Europe which is traditionally part of our continent and should be part of enlargement. He said he hopes consensus can be reached at the Brussels' summit.

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