Thursday

21st Jan 2021

EU preparing to unlock North Macedonia and Albania talks

  • EU Council president Charles Michel (c) in Skopje in January (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU is preparing to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania next week after France and the Netherlands got what they wanted.

The EU "decides to open accession negotiations" with the two republics, EU states are planning to declare at a general affairs council on 24 March, if all goes well.

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  • French veto was a 'strategic mistake', Macedonian prime minister Oliver Spasovski (l) told EUobserver (Photo: consilium.europa.e)

The five little, but giant words appeared in a draft declaration circulated by Croatia's EU presidency on Wednesday (18 March) and seen by EUobserver.

The text was all-but agreed in talks between the 27 EU ambassadors in Brussels the same day, diplomatic sources said.

But the ambassadors' final decision was delayed until Friday for technical reasons, they said.

The emerging breakthrough comes after France and the Netherlands forced changes to the process.

The way the EU does enlargement in future would be "subject to stronger political steering, based on objective criteria and rigorous positive and negative conditionality, and reversibility," the draft declaration said.

The clause referred to previous French demands on how to rewrite EU enlargement methodology, including new ways to punish candidates for backsliding.

Albania would also have to fulfil anti-corruption reforms before EU states convened an intergovernmental conference to move forward on its process, the draft declaration added.

Albania's to-do list included electoral and judicial reforms, fighting organised crime, and "tackling the phenomenon of unfounded asylum applications and ensuring repatriations".

And that took care of previous Dutch concerns.

"France is pretty much on board, but it was still keen to have further reflection on methodology ... The Dutch said they can go ahead," an EU diplomat told EUobserver on Thursday.

"France is OK with the methodology ... The situation is OK. I think we have a good chance [of adoption on Friday]," a second diplomat said.

"The new draft should be acceptable to France and the Netherlands," a third one said.

Denmark had also previously voiced objections to talks with Albania, but its concerns were similar to Dutch ones.

Thursday's technical delay came amid reflection on how to handle EU Council meetings in the coronavirus pandemic.

One quandary is whether EU ministers can take formal decisions, such as opening accession talks, via video-conference.

"The first question is: 'Is there going to be a general affairs council [on 24 March]?'," an EU diplomat said.

But the pandemic did not mean enlargement or other projects were being put on hold.

"The Council confirms that the enlargement process ... will be continued," the Croatian EU presidency's draft declaration said.

"Of course everyone is conscious of the crisis, but on the other hand, we have things to do - the Green Deal, enlargement, Operation Irene ... so we continue to work," an EU diplomat also said, referring to a new EU climate change fund and a naval operation.

French veto

Meanwhile, another question is whether EU affairs ministers will adopt the enlargement declaration without further discussion next week, or whether some will first want to speak out.

France upset EU peers when it vetoed opening talks with North Macedonia last year - even though the country had changed its name to fall in line with demands.

The Netherlands' hard line on Albania at a time when the EU was competing with Russia and China in the Western Balkans also caused concern.

"Some member states might want to say they [France and the Netherlands] used too much pressure ... that it wasn't the right way of doing things," an EU diplomat said.

The French veto prompted the resignation of the pro-EU prime minister of Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, and snap elections due on 12 April.

The veto was a "strategic mistake" that created an opening for nationalist forces to try to stage a comeback, North Macedonia's caretaker prime minister Oliver Spasovski recently told EUobserver.

It also hurt pro-EU feeling more broadly in the Western Balkans, he added.

And that was in ever-shorter supply in the virus emergency after the EU restricted exports of medical equipment to non-member states.

Retrofit

Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey already opened EU accession negotiations years ago.

But the EU believes it can retrofit the French reforms, such as new clauses on enlargement "reversibility", into the ongoing talks.

"The proposed changes can be accommodated within existing negotiating frameworks with the agreement of the respective countries," the draft declaration of 18 March said.

The European Commission is currently turning the French ideas into fully fledged legal protocols.

Bosnia and Kosovo have also been promised EU membership in future, but lag behind the others.

Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have said they want to join one day.

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.

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