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15th Dec 2019

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France unveils new model EU enlargement

  • French president Emmanuel Macron shocked EU colleagues at October summit by saying no to North Macedonia (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Western Balkan countries should still become EU members, but via a new, step-by-step method, France has said.

The "gradual association" idea was the basis for a "reformed approach to the [EU] accession process", set out in an informal, six-page paper circulated to EU diplomats by France on Friday (15 November) and seen by EUobserver.

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  • French veto could harm Western influence in the region, Germany and US warned (Photo: Zlatevska DNEVNIK)

EU enlargement currently works by opening accession negotiations with candidate countries, which cover 35 separate areas or "chapters" of European law.

Once candidates agree to make the necessary reforms, they are admitted as full members and have access to European programmes, such as science grants, and to tens of billions of euros a year in EU subsidies.

But in the new French model, they would make the reforms in a seven-step process, gaining access to selected EU programmes and funds along the way, before arriving at "full" membership.

The seven steps are: (i) rule of law and fundamental rights; (ii) education and research; (iii) employment and social affairs; (iv) financial affairs; (v) the single market, agriculture, and fish; (vi) foreign affairs; and (vii) "others".

If candidates graduated step one, they could gain entry to Eurojust, the EU judicial cooperation club in The Hague, for instance, France said.

Step two could see them win access to the so-called Horizon 2020 science programme and let Balkan universities take part in the Erasmus student exchange scheme, the French paper added .

Step four could see them join the EU banking union, while step five would "make candidate countries eligible for structural funds" - the multi-billion euro subsidies.

"Completion of negotiations corresponding to each step taken by the country would open the possibility to participate in corresponding EU programmes, to be associated to certain relevant sectoral policies, and, where appropriate, to benefit from certain targeted funding," the French paper said.

The "final objective remains full and entire accession", it added.

EU affairs ministers will hold initial talks on the French ideas in Brussels on Tuesday.

They would have to agree to any changes by unanimity.

But if things went well, then the European Commission ought to flesh out the ideas in legal documents by January 2020, France noted.

And that might mean the EU reforms could still be put in place, or, at least, agreed in principle, in time for a summit with Western Balkan leaders in Zagreb in May.

Veto shocker

The new proposals came after French president Emmanuel Macron caused shock last month by vetoing the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia, even though it had changed its name to comply with EU demands.

It prompted concern that France intended to halt EU expansion in the Western Balkans.

It also prompted German and US warnings on potential instability or in a spike in Chinese and Russian influence in the region.

But the French paper "reaffirmed" the EU's "unequivocal support for the European perspective of Western Balkan countries".

Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia "belonged to Europe by their history, their culture, and their geography," France said.

It did not mention Turkey, which is an official EU candidate, but whose talks were de facto suspended three years ago after a failed coup in Ankara led to mass-scale repression.

Any EU reforms could also affect Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, which aspire to join one day.

The French paper justified Macron's veto by saying the past 20 years of EU intervention in the Western Balkans had yielded "too slow" progress and "insufficient benefits" for its people.

But the step-by-step method, and its acceleration of EU subsidies, would bring "concrete benefits", it said.

And those, in turn, would "stem the migratory movements [out of the Western Balkans to Europe] which pose difficulties for both sides" and "reduce unfavourable external influence [from China and Russia]," it added.

New rigour

France also warned that Western Balkan backsliding on democracy or rule of law would come at a price, however.

It called for "rigorous conditions" and "reversibility" of EU benefits if things went awry.

"Criteria for passage from one step to another will be precisely defined, allowing for verification of their effective and lasting ... implementation," France noted.

The criteria on the rule of law step could be taken from the "justice scoreboard", while the financial affairs one could be based on the "European semester", France said, referring to two existing EU checklists on member states' judicial and fiscal compliance.

The Council of Europe in Strasbourg, a European human rights watchdog, could also furnish criteria on constitutional probity and on anti-money laundering compliance, France noted.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a wealthy nations' club in Paris, and the World Bank in Washington could supply additional benchmarks, it said.

But "specific governance" on enlargement steps would be in the hands of the EU commission and member states, who would "regularly follow ... progress made" and "examine" candidates' performance, France said.

Bosnia wants explanation for Macron's 'time-bomb' remark

Bosnia requested an interview with the French ambassador to Sarajevo, after Emmanuel Macron described the country as a "ticking time bomb" and one of the greatest concerns for Europe due to the "problem of returning jihadists".

Macron warned on danger of Balkans veto

France's veto on North Macedonia enlargement will endanger the Serbia-Kosovo peace process, a senior EU official has warned, but diplomats do not expect Macron to change his mind.

EPP wants to re-open accession talks with Balkans

An emergency resolution adopted at the European People's Party (EPP) congress in Zagreb calls on the EU Council and member states to take a positive decision on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible.

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