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25th Jan 2021

US to push France on Western Balkans enlargement

  • French president Emmanuel Macron 'shocked' EU institutions (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The US will push France to lift its veto on Western Balkans enlargement to correct a "historic mistake", a senior diplomat has said.

"America wants the Western Balkans to have a European perspective and will do everything in its power to persuade the European Union to change its position before the next EU leaders' meeting in Zagreb in May," the US special envoy to the region, Matthew Palmer, said in Belgrade on Monday (4 November).

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"For us, the EU made a historic mistake, sending a bad message to the entire region", he also said, referring to the French decision.

EU leaders are to meet their Western Balkan counterparts in Zagreb in May during Croatia's presidency of the EU Council.

The special summit comes after French president Emmanuel Macron vetoed the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia in late October.

The EU ought to reform its enlargement protocols and Skopje ought to do more to fight corruption before taking further steps, France said.

But its technical objections came after North Macedonia had bent over backwards to meet EU demands, including changing its name.

And EU institutions felt in the dark on Macron's real motive for the coup, an EU source said.

"We're all still a little shocked. What does France really want?", the source said.

"North Macedonia had done everything, so the timing of such a reflection process [on EU enlargement procedure] was damaging," the source added.

Some member states have called for France to clarify its position at upcoming meetings of EU ambassadors or ministers, with Berlin leading the criticism of Paris.

And the EU source echoed the US special envoy, Palmer, on the importance of changing Macron's mind in time for the Zagreb event.

"If we get to May and we're still where we are today, then you would have to start questioning the EU's credibility on enlargement," the source said.

For his part, Palmer also urged Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić to normalise relations with Kosovo to clear Serbia's EU path.

But Vučić indicated that he would never recognise Kosovo, highlighting the importance of Western engagement for conflict resolution in the region.

"Serbia is ready for a compromise but is not, and will never be ready, for its own humiliation and disrespect of its people in Kosovo and Metohija, and of the state as a whole," Vučić said, using the Serb name for Kosovo.

Palmer, speaking in Pristina earlier this weekend, also called the French "pause" on enlargement "frustrating".

"The EU must do its own homework, and do it very quickly we hope" he said at the time.

"The integration of the Western Balkans into the West must be completed ... This vision is central to US strategic interests as well, and, we would assert, European strategic interests," Palmer said.

If the West ceded ground, then "Russia, China, [and] other actors would happily leap to fill any vacuum of leadership, of vision in this important region," he warned.

"Moscow actively opposes the region's Western integration, sowing turmoil, doubt, and disinformation wherever it can," he said.

"Even as Russia seeks to sow chaos politically, China seeks to purchase loyalty and obedience," the US diplomat added.

"Through loans and investments, China is working to insinuate itself into the infrastructure fabric of the region, targeting strategic industries like telecommunications, energy, mining, steel production, and heavy manufacturing," he said.

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