The bloc’s enlargement commissioner blasted Paris over the membership veto, saying it was “not a moment of glory for Europe” and apologised to the Balkan states. France’s European Affairs Minister Amélie de Montchalin said Paris would stick to its hardline position until a deep reform of EU membership rules, which range from economic policy to human rights and the rule of law. “The first thing we need to talk about is how Europe must reform the way it does enlargement and negotiations,” Mrs de Montchalin said, calling the accession process “an endless soap opera”.
She added: “Is the process efficient? From our point of view, no.”
A French presidency official added Emmanuel Macron’s government would not agree to open talks for now.
“These countries will be part of the European Union one day… but it is too early to open the legal process towards enlargement for now,” the source said.
Last week, another French official said the two countries “are not there yet” and needed to make “additional efforts” in order to join the bloc. “We will need to reassess the situation somewhere in 2020,” he said.
Paris argues the bloc faces too many challenges, including Brexit, a bolder China, migration, climate change and security threats posed by Russia – to let in two more states from the Balkans, a region still recovering from its 1990s wars and marred by crime and corruption.
More than half of the EU’s 28 member states, as well as top officials in Brussels, are in favour of opening the talks. But unanimity among all EU countries is required to launch negotiations.
They fear that further delays in an already dragged-out process could backfire by pushing the Balkan hopefuls into the arms of Russia, China or Turkey, which could seek to take advantage of the “strategic vacuum” in the unstable region.
While the Netherlands expressed support for Paris’ opposition to entering into membership talks with Albania, most other EU countries voiced frustration with the French position.
“It’s very important to give a political signal that enlargement is not dead,” said George Ciamba, Romania’s EU minister.
Apologising to the citizens of the two Balkan states, Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters in Luxembourg that “it was not a moment of glory for Europe”.
“We have to restore our credibility in the Western Balkans and live up to our commitments. North Macedonia and Albania have done their homework and implemented painful reforms,” he said.
For decades, the bloc has struggled to balance enlargement with deeper economic and political cooperation. It now stretches from Portugal in the west to former communist states once in Moscow’s orbit to the east.
But the constant and rapid expansion of the EU over the years has complicated decision-making and led to a kind of “enlargement fatigue”. Turkey’s membership talks, for example, are all but frozen.