Nine EU countries have pushed back on France’s drive to overhaul the process for taking in new members, arguing that North Macedonia and Albania should get the green light by March 2020 even if the rules are under review.
The counter-proposal is laid out in a three-page document, obtained by POLITICO, which is backed by Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovenia.
The enlargement of the European Union has become one of the most contentious issues among EU members. In October, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania even as most other EU members, including Germany, and the European Commission were in favor of getting started.
France has argued the whole process needs to be revamped before any more countries can be put on the path to EU membership, and that accession can take place only once the EU as a whole has been reformed and made more effective. Paris last month put forward its ideas for a tougher accession process in a so-called “non-paper” for discussion. France’s approach would likely push the start of any membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania much further down the road.
The new “non paper” from the nine countries is clearly intended as a response to the French document. It states that an “enhanced approach to accession” should be “without prejudice to the decisions on opening the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia which should be taken by March 2020 at the latest in order to live up to the EU’s commitments.”
“The French have not said yet they are ready to accept that enlargement review and start of accession talks can go in parallel” — EU diplomat
“It replies in a constructive way to the French document but it neutralizes the most dangerous elements of their proposal,” one diplomat said. Austria, Italy, Poland and Slovenia took the lead in drawing up the document and others then joined the initiative, the diplomat said.
Another diplomat said the document was an attempt to offer a compromise, by agreeing that the accession process should be reformed while also arguing that Skopje and Tirana should not have to wait for this to happen.
Yet the different camps within the EU still seem far apart. “The French have not said yet they are ready to accept that enlargement review and start of accession talks can go in parallel,” a third diplomat said.
In the document, entitled “Elements for an enhanced enlargement process and sustained and accelerated integration of the Western Balkans,” the nine countries declare that “internal EU reform cannot be a precondition for enlargement.”
EU leaders are expected to revert to the issue in March ahead of a summit on the Western Balkans in Zagreb in May. The European Commission is expected to put forward a proposal at the end of January on reviewing the enlargement process.
The current accession process involves prospective members and the EU opening “chapters” on different policy areas that have to be brought into alignment with EU standards. Multiple “chapters” can be open at the same time.
According to the French plan, the process “would no longer be based on simultaneous opening of a large number of thematic chapters but on several successive stages.” The nine countries behind the new paper argue for a different approach, declaring “it should be possible to open groups of chapters in parallel and not consecutively.”
Critics of the French plan argue that it would be very difficult for prospective members to make progress, as Paris puts the issue of rule of law right at the start of the process. That topic would be one of the hardest hurdles for countries in the Western Balkans to overcome quickly, given deep-seated problems with crime and corruption in the region.
The nine countries also proposed that Western Balkan countries could be involved in a Conference on the Future of Europe — a brainchild of Macron’s meant to consider reforms to the EU and expected to start next year.
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