February 5, 2020 / 11:43 AM / 12 days ago

French change of tone boosts Balkan states' hopes of joining EU

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - France has welcomed the European Union’s proposed changes to the way it admits new countries, which could smooth the path towards membership for Balkan countries after President Emmanuel Macron blocked accession talks.

European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The EU’s enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi unveiled a new methodology for admitting new member states on Wednesday. The reforms were forced by Macron blocking the start of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania - a decision EU chiefs described as a historic error - and demanding changes to the bloc’s so-called enlargement process.

The proposals would give existing EU members more powers to pause or reverse the process of admitting new nations, or even force countries to restart entry talks in some policy areas.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” an Elysee official said in Paris. “There’s a real change of methodology that is being proposed. It’s an important and positive one.”

Asked if the reform was enough to dispel French objections, the official said Paris would consult with other EU countries in the spring before making a decision.

In Brussels, Varhelyi stressed the EU still aimed to admit six Balkan countries into the bloc - North Macedonia and Albania, as well Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia.

Serbia and Montenegro are the most advanced in their negotiations and could join the bloc later this decade. North Macedonia and Albania are next in line to open talks.

The European Commission - the EU’s executive body - needs to get France on board with the accession process before a Zagreb summit with the six Balkan states in May.

‘MEMBERSHIP OFFERED TO REGION’

Varhelyi said enlargement was “geo-strategic”, a reference to a view that the EU cannot stem its waning global influence without stabilising the Balkans.

“We continue to have full enlargement as a goal,” he told a news conference after publishing the European Commission reforms, which were reported by Reuters on Tuesday.

“EU membership is offered to the entire region, including Kosovo.”

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move not recognised by five of the EU’s 27 member states.

Macron’s decision in October to block the process of admitting North Macedonia and Albania was backed by the Netherlands and Denmark. The French president argued that the enlargement process was “too bureaucratic” and “automatic” and should give existing member states more power to reverse the process if the situation in candidate countries deteriorated.

The following month France, which says it supports accession for the Balkans nations in the long term, submitted a proposal for changes.

One EU diplomat urged Paris to allow membership talks to move forward with North Macedonia and Albania.

“The Commission has built a solid bridge for France. We are counting on Paris to walk over this bridge now,” the diplomat told Reuters.

Reporting by Robin Emmott and Michel Rose; Editing by Marine Strauss and Pravin Char

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