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28th Jan 2021

Finland: EU 'not brain dead' on enlargement

  • Finland's Tytti Tuppurainen voiced support for Western Balkans' states EU future despite the French veto (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU countries gave a mixed reaction to French proposals on enlargement reform during initial talks in Brussels.

"Some were more positive, and some more cautious," the Finnish EU affairs minister, Tytti Tuppurainen, who chaired the meeting on behalf of her country's EU presidency, said on Tuesday (19 November).

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  • Old way of doing things had caused 'frustration', France's Amélie de Montchalin (c) said (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"The common position was that we should wait for the European Commission to ... present proposals on how to move forward," she added.

Tuppurainen spoke after France, last month, vetoed any new steps on Western Balkans enlargement until the EU had first reformed the way it handled the process.

But EU capitals also had to wait for the new commission to start work before they could task it to draft any changes, the Finnish minister noted.

The commission was meant to have started on 1 November, but this has been delayed to at least 1 December after MEPs rejected three commissioner candidates.

"We're not doing nothing [on enlargement]. Doing nothing would have meant not to have this item on the agenda today, so, of course, we're not doing nothing, we're not 'brain dead'," Tuppurainen added, alluding to a recent comment by French president Emmanuel Macron that Nato was "brain dead".

All 28 EU countries, on Tuesday, also voiced "commitment to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries ... this shows that Europe isn't in stalemate on the issue," Tuppurainen said.

For her part, the French EU affairs minister, Amélie de Montchalin, said Denmark and the Netherlands were "very close" to France's thinking.

Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia were also "convergent" with France, she added.

The French veto had earlier prompted Germany and the US to warn that China and Russia would boost influence in the Western Balkans if Europe held back.

"There are those who say enlargement is a response to external influence in the Balkans, but we cannot respond to this influence by sending questionnaires [to candidate countries] about the single market or public tenders, at a time when others are actually making investments," De Montchalin said on Monday, referring to Chinese strategic investments in the region.

The old way of doing things had caused "frustration" and "fatigue", she added.

And the reform debate did not mean that Serbia and Montenegro's accession negotiations, which have already begun, were not "legitimate", the French minister said.

French model

The French proposals, circulated to EU diplomats last Friday and seen by EUobserver, had called for "gradual association" and more "rigorous" monitoring on rule of law.

The "gradual" idea was to unlock countries' access to selected EU policies and subsidies en route to full accession.

But the new rigour meant those EU benefits could be taken away, or "reversed", if things went awry.

For his part, Pierre Mirel, a French academic who used to be in charge of the EU commission's Western Balkans department and who recently published his own ideas on step-by-step accession, told EUobserver the French model was flawed, however.

"I plead for the Western Balkans joining the single market as a priority, not at what they [the French] call stage five [in their new model process], which may mean a long period of time," he said.

"I also put heavy emphasis on financial support and a much closer link with reforms, values, and bilateral issues," he added, referring to issues such as normalisation of Kosovo-Serbia relations.

Bad example?

France, last month, had linked its veto to alleged backsliding on rule of law in Albania and North Macedonia.

But the fact the same was happening in existing EU states such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania, could set a "bad example" for Balkan aspirants, an EU source also warned.

Hungary and Poland are under EU sanctions procedures and Romania has been told it could be next.

The EU court in Luxembourg, also on Tuesday, ruled that a new Polish judicial disciplinary body lacked political independence.

But Hungary and Poland, the same day, vetoed ministers' conclusions on how to beef up EU rule-of-law monitoring inside its ranks.

The Polish EU affairs minister, Konrad Szymanski, told press in Brussels that EU institutions had no legal mandate to interfere in member states' judicial affairs.

And, "unfortunately, we did not succeed to reach a consensus" despite "a very large majority" on the other side, Finland's Tuppurainen said.

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