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11th Apr 2021

Balkans row to hit EU summit after French veto

  • French president Emmanuel Macron was already sore after German MEPs helped kill his European Commission candidate (Photo: Consilium)

Thursday's (17 October) EU summit could see French and German leaders butt heads on enlargement after France blocked new Western Balkans talks.

"It'll be the first time the accession of North Macedonia and Albania will be discussed at the highest level," Finnish foreign minister Tytti Tuppurainen said in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

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"Leaders have a wider spectrum of issues to discuss - there's Brexit, there's Turkey, so I think there's an awareness that Europe, at this stage, cannot afford to be inward looking," she said, referring to Turkey's invasion of Syria.

"It's now up to the European Council to try to rectify today's non-outcome," EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn also said.

They spoke after France vetoed opening accession talks with the two Western Balkan states at the Luxembourg meeting.

Denmark and the Netherlands were also against opening negotiations with Albania, but France said no to talks with either of the two candidates.

"There's no animosity, no aggression - it was a cordial discussion," Amelie De Montchalin, the French EU affairs minister, claimed after the Luxembourg meeting ended.

But the fiasco prompted EU Council president Donald Tusk to put the topic on the summit agenda, Tuppurainen said.

The Finnish minister and Hahn, as well as others, including Germany, also voiced dismay.

"It wasn't a moment of glory for Europe," Hahn said.

"There are other countries - Russia and China - who are just waiting for the EU to withdraw from this region," Polish EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski noted.

"It's very important to give a political signal that enlargement is not dead," Romanian foreign minister George Ciamba said.

For his part, German EU affairs minister Micheal Roth said Berlin's position was "crystal clear ... the EU takes responsibility for stability, democracy, and reconciliation in the Western Balkans and that means keeping our promises".

"Much can be lost by creating a strategic vacuum there," a German diplomat added.

"Chancellor Angel Merkel will raise the issue with Macron on Wednesday ... It is a strategic question for the EU," a German official also said.

He was referring to Merkel's plan to meet French president Emmanuel Macron in the French town of Toulouse on Wednesday for pre-summit talks.

The Western Balkans dispute comes after German MEPs from Merkel's political party voted to dismiss Macron's candidate for EU commissioner - Sylvie Goulard - last week.

It also comes after France failed to follow Germany on an arms ban on Saudi Arabia earlier this year, in a further sign of fraying relations.

For her part, France's De Montchalin tried to justify the veto on Tuesday by saying North Macedonia and Albania had "not arrived at the full realisation" of EU-demanded reforms.

The EU also needed to change its own accession protocols in order to make them "less frustrating for candidate countries," she added.

But Hahn and, in a gentler way, Tuppurainen dismissed the French claims in their press remarks.

"Europe has made commitments and now it's time to live up to our obligations," the Finnish minister said.

Hahn apologised to North Macedonian and Albanian citizens for the very frustration caused by France.

"They deserve it [EU accession talks]. These people have dreams, desires, aspirations," he said.

"They have delivered [on reforms] - full stop. Then we have to deliver. But we didn't," he added.

"There's a certain trend that those who are already in [the EU] are a little reluctant to let others in," Hahn said on France.

France keen to pause EU enlargement

France wants to pause EU enlargement pending major reforms, in what some fear could "destabilise" the Western Balkans.

EU split on Western Balkans accession

Europe's credibility is at risk in the Western Balkans, half its member states have warned - but EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Albania and North Macedonia unlikely to start accession talks soon.

Central European leaders demand Balkan EU accession

Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have demanded to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania this year, as Hungary's man prepares to take over the enlargement portfolio.

Brexit deal now hinges on Northern Irish unionists

Brexit negotiators held marathon talks but the Northern Irish unionists appear to be axing UK prime minister Boris Johnson's revised deal, as EU leaders gathered in Brussels to discuss Brexit but also other divisive, long-term issues.

EU fails to deliver on Albania and North Macedonia

Denmark, France and the Netherlands opposed opening talks on EU accession with Albania and North Macedonia in a blow that may invite greater Russian influence in the Balkan region.

Crucial summit: last EU-28 format?

The EU summit will be crucial for the future of the EU, but especially for the UK. The next EU summit will not be the same since the UK's withdrawal will have consequences for the power relations within the council.

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