Macron aims at tightening EU accession rules

The French proposals amount to an effective halt on enlargement, lessening the Western Balkan countries chances to join the club

Emmanuel Macron wants to make it further tougher for the EU to accept new members. In a document circulated to EU governments, France said the process of EU enlargement should be more “gradual,” terms of accession more “stringent” and the process “reversible.”

Furthermore, accession should only be possible “in the long term,” and only after the bloc has been “reformed,” according to the memo. Two EU diplomats in Brussels said the French proposals amount to an effective halt on EU enlargement, making accession a moving target for western Balkan countries. EU ministers will discuss the matter on Tuesday, just weeks after Paris torpedoed the start of accession negotiations with Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia.

The vast majority of European governments, including Germany, see the Balkans as the continent’s soft underbelly for Russian influence and instability, and support accession negotiations as a way to anchor the region’s fragile states to the West. The French proposals were circulated days after President Macron signaled support for rapprochement with Moscow and said the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is suffering a “brain death.”

In the memo, France proposes that accession talks be organised into seven stages, and that convergence with the EU’s rule-of-law standards be part of the first stage.

The plan highlights France’s exasperation with the constant fighting between Brussels and eastern European countries admitted to the bloc in 2004 and 2007. The skirmishes have centered on judicial independence and the state of democracy in those countries.

One of the EU diplomats said it’s difficult to see how demands for far-reaching overhauls at the beginning of the envisaged process, in return for small rewards, could encourage reforms and reformers in the western Balkans.

The French document is based on the idea of a “variable-geometry Europe,” the second diplomat said, with a series of concentric circles of “associated” countries, which would most likely never become member states. In return for accepting a slower admission process, Balkan states would be eligible for more financial incentives, including access to structural funds from the EU’s joint budget, according to the memo, the authenticity of which was confirmed by the Elysee Palace. 

Access to the bloc’s customs union and the single market would be granted before accession, while negotiations could be suspended at any stage and benefits revoked in the event of backtracking on reforms. The infighting over further enlargement reflects two competing political views: the German-backed argument that offering more Balkan countries the hope of joining the world’s top trading club strengthens Europe’s stability; and French-led calls for deeper integration of the bloc before any further expansion.

For many Brussels insiders, Macron’s resistance to further enlargement is rooted in internal considerations, as admitting more poor member states could further strengthen eurosceptic and populist forces, including in France.

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