Six EU member countries have responded to French proposals to overhaul the EU accession process, expressing qualified support for Paris’ position.
The letter follows the decision at last month’s European Council meeting not to allow Albania and North Macedonia to begin on the formal road to EU membership. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker described the rebuff as “an historic mistake.”
In a letter to Juncker dated Monday and seen by POLITICO, the six countries support reforming the existing procedure and setting down a deadline to avoid drawing out the process indefinitely. It is signed by the foreign and European affairs ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovak Republic, Italy and Slovenia.
In an apparent evolution of their position, they recognize the shortcomings of the accession process as it stands today — something that will be welcomed by France, which has argued for an overhaul of the system — but also set a deadline for opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
“It is true that the current accession process in the Western Balkans progresses slowly and somewhat unevenly. We are therefore ready to engage constructively in an effort to improve this process. We will do so on the understanding that … it enables the EU to reach consensus on opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in March 2020,” the letter said.
The signatories also called on the Commission to come up with proposals by January 2020 “to enhance the effectiveness of the accession process.”
France found itself at the center of a contentious debate at the October European Council leaders’ summit, during which President Emmanuel Macron prevailed in his push to block a proposal to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
The mention of a March 2020 deadline appears to stress that the review of the enlargement process cannot be a reason to delay the opening of accession talks. At the October meeting EU leaders agreed they “will revert to the issue of enlargement before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May 2020.”
France was not alone in opposing the start of such negotiations, but Macron was most forceful in the face of a large majority that supported going forward, especially in opening talks with North Macedonia. Part of the French argument was its insistence that the current membership process is flawed and is in need of significant changes. Other countries saw that as an excuse to scuttle the enlargement process indefinitely, and renege on the EU’s promise to both countries.
“We are ready for a reform of the EU enlargement process; there is always room for improvement, but that must not lead to a delaying tactic regarding North Macedonia and Albania and their European perspective,” Austrian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters upon arriving at the General Affairs Council (GAC) on Tuesday morning. “We want to make sure that next year by all means there will be a green light for the opening of accession talks.”
“Proposed reflection on the enlargement policy cannot delay opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.” — A diplomat from a signatory country.
The signatories also called on the Commission to come up with proposals by January 2020 “to enhance the effectiveness of the accession process as an instrument to support reform and integration efforts in the region.”
Though it echoes some of the criticisms France has leveled against the current process, the letter doesn’t explicitly support, or even mention, the French proposal.
“It’s a sign of peace but not an endorsement,” said one diplomat from one of the signatory countries who wished to remain anonymous. “Our position, like the great majority of the other member states, has not changed, we want first to respect our commitments and open accession talks, in the meantime we can discuss how to reform the process. It’s a typical diplomatic tool, we want to show we want to be constructive.”
The sentiment was echoed by a diplomat from another signatory country.
“This letter is no shift” because “we have been supporting the enlargement process continuously” and “we call for enhancing the effectiveness of the accession process.”
France maintains that it supports EU enlargement to the Balkans over the long term, while the six signatories call for the accession process to “continue without unnecessary delay” and affirm that “there is no viable alternative to full-fledged membership of the Western Balkan countries in the EU if we want to safeguard our interests in the region effectively.”
A third diplomat from a signatory country said the “proposed reflection on the enlargement policy cannot delay opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. This process must be parallel — not instead of.”
Monday’s letter was meant as a “counterweight” to the French move, according to a diplomat from a fourth signatory country.
Nevertheless, France took the letter from the six countries as a positive sign.
“Today there are six countries, namely Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, that have also expressed their desire to see work continue, along with the Commission, to make this negotiation process more efficient,” French European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin told reporters upon arriving at the GAC.
“We wish to send a strong message to the Western Balkan countries that the EU will deliver” — Tytti Tuppurainen, EU minister of Finland
De Montchalin said nothing about committing to opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania by March 2020, as outlined in the letter by the six signatories, but set the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May 2020 as a timeline to have “a more effective procedure” in place.
On Friday, France shared with EU member states its proposals for overhauling the accession process. It sets out a new seven-stage process, built on four principles of gradual association of candidate states to European policies, stringent conditions, tangible benefits and reversibility.
EU ministers are later Tuesday expected to deliver a message to North Macedonia and Albania that the EU door is still open.
“We wish to send a strong message to the Western Balkan countries that the EU will deliver and the leaders will come back to the issue next spring,” said Tytti Tuppurainen, the EU minister of Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council.
Referring to the French proposal, she said “it is good that they have their own proposal, it keeps the process ongoing, but nevertheless we all have to wait for the new Commission to start its mandate and for them to fine tune or adjust, if there is anything we can do in the process, so that we can reach an unanimous position on enlargement. But it’s very important that today we send a message to Western Balkan countries.”