EU ministers were to decide on Tuesday whether Albania and North Macedonia could start formal talks to join the European Union, as French officials have indicated they plan to veto the move and the Netherlands has also voiced concerns.
A decision at the meeting of EU European Affairs ministers not to launch negotiations would deal a blow to the two Balkan countries and risk souring relations.
The European Commission found earlier this year that Tirana and Skopje had done the necessary work to take forward their EU accession bid, despite concerns about lagging progress in fighting corruption and organised crime.
But France sees things differently, diplomats told dpa on Monday evening following a special meeting ahead of Luxembourg talks, and - at odds with the overwhelming majority of member states - does not believe accession talks should start just yet.
Germany's minister of state for Europe said Berlin is ‘very disappointed that we apparently aren't in the position today to stick to what we have promised multiple times.’ If Europe doesn't increase its presence in the region and support values like democracy, rule of law and regional reconciliation, a ‘political vacuum’ could emerge and be filled by other powers, Michael Roth warned in an apparent reference to Russia and China.
North Macedonia and Albania are neighbours to EU member states.
Skopje in particular went to great lengths to resolve a long-standing dispute with EU member Greece by changing its country's name to North Macedonia at the bloc's behest.
Albania, meanwhile, has undertaken a major overhaul of its justice system, although progress has been overshadowed by an ongoing political crisis.
French European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin said Paris was not committed to a veto position ahead of Tuesday's talks and was open for exchange on the issue.
However, France wants a reform of the accession process, which is ‘slow and frustrating’ for applicants, she said.
France fully supports the ambitions of Western Balkan states to join the EU, Montchalin stressed, ‘but we have to do the things in a credible manner to create confidence in the region and in Europe.’ Finland, which currently holds the rotating European Council presidency, and Austria have expressed support for opening the accession process on Tuesday morning.
But the Netherlands offered France some backing. Talks with North Macedonia could start if moves were made on setting up an independent public prosecutor, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said. But in the case of Albania ‘there is more work to be done.’ If France or the Netherlands blocked the move, they would also go against the will of incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen penned a letter supporting the start of accession talks with the two Balkan states along with other senior EU figures.
Tirana and Skopje had done ‘what we asked them to do,’ making significant efforts to reform, said the letter, published earlier this month.
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