France warns of 'endless soap opera' on Balkans EU membership

Paris wants the EU to change the way it admits new members.

    The enlargement of the European Union should be reformed, French officials have argued [Francois Lenoir/Reuters]
    The enlargement of the European Union should be reformed, French officials have argued [Francois Lenoir/Reuters]

    France stuck to its hard line position against European Union membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania on Tuesday, warning it could not approve negotiations until the bloc reformed the "endless soap opera" of admitting new members.

    European ministers, making a third attempt since June 2018 to approve membership talks for the Balkan hopefuls, are set to discuss in Luxembourg opening a path for Skopje and Tirana, with broad EU support and backing from the United States.

    But Amelie de Montchalin, France's secretary of state for European Affairs, said there could be no way forward until what French President Emmanuel Macron in July called "deep reform" of EU membership rules.

    That French position has raised concerns in Brussels about further delays in an already drawn-out process that will deepen the Balkans' growing ties with Russia and China.

    The six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, all of which apart from Albania emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia, are considered future EU members.

    "The first thing we need to talk about is how Europe must reform the way it does enlargement and negotiations," de Montchalin said, calling the process "an endless soap opera".

    "Is the process efficient? From our point of view, no."

    The impasse sets up a showdown between Macron and the rest of the bloc at a two-day summit in Brussels from Thursday if European ministers cannot agree to open talks in Luxembourg.

    Deeply frustrated

    While the Netherlands supports French wariness of membership talks for Albania, which is already a member of the US-led NATO alliance, many other countries, led by Italy, are deeply frustrated by the French position.

    Paris says the EU faces too many challenges to let in two more states from the Balkans, a region still scarred by wars fought in the 1990s and struggling with crime and corruption.

    Germany has proposed a compromise by starting EU membership talks with North Macedonia before the end of this year and agreeing in principle to launch the process for Albania, but without setting a date before Tirana meets more conditions.

    The European Commission, which handles so-called EU accession talks, said it was wrong to add more conditions because North Macedonia and Albania had met targets set by the EU governments.

    "It's becoming harder and harder to provide a proper explanation [for the delay]," European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU membership bids, told Reuters. "If we agreed with our partners on steps to take and our partners are delivering, it is then our time to deliver."

    Hahn pointed to Albanian reforms to root out bribery among judges, which many in the EU say are the most significant assault on judicial fraud since the state of three million people emerged from communist isolation in the early 1990s.

    North Macedonia, meanwhile, has resolved a long dispute with Greece over the country's name - changing from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia - and has cleared the way for NATO membership, probably in December.

    "It's very important to give a political signal that enlargement is not dead," said George Ciamba, Romania's EU minister, as he arrived at the Luxembourg meeting.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency