June 18, 2019 / 10:18 AM / 3 months ago

Italy pushes for EU-North Macedonia talks despite German, Cypriot hurdles

* Albania, North Macedonia see accession talks delayed

* EU credibility at stake, many fear broken promises

By Gabriela Baczynska

LUXEMBOURG, June 18 (Reuters) - A majority of EU governments led by Italy sought on Tuesday to make good on a promise to open EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, which face further delays to their hopes of joining the bloc from northern Europe.

Europe ministers met in Luxembourg almost a year to the day since they unexpectedly postponed a decision to open talks with the two countries and cast doubt on the EU’s Balkan strategy in the face of a growing regional Russian and Chinese presence.

“We need to keep up the momentum,” George Ciamba, Romania’s European affairs minister, told reporters. Italy’s Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero said there needed to be a final agreement on Tuesday.

Despite a European Commission recommendation on May 29 for North Macedonia and Albania to start talks, Germany’s parliament has pushed back any decision until September and the Dutch lower house has rejected opening negotiations with Albania.

France has also shown reluctance, calling for the EU to sort out its own internal problems before admitting new members.

EU diplomats say anti-immigration sentiment in northern Europe has lessened appetite in Paris, Berlin and The Hague, while in a further complication, Cyprus has threatened to veto any agreement unless the EU confronts Turkey over drilling in their territorial waters in the Mediterranean.

Issues raised by Cyprus “have nothing to do with the enlargement”, Moavero told reporters. “The open issues are mostly linked to the vote in the German parliament which has been postponed to after summer.”

Albania and North Macedonia had hoped the bloc’s Europe ministers would give the go-ahead at the meeting in Luxembourg. That would have cleared the way for approval by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Those in favour of a green light for talks, including a group of 13 countries from Italy to Poland, say the EU’s credibility is at stake after North Macedonia sealed a landmark deal with Greece to end a name dispute and open its path to both the bloc and the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

“It is in the interest of the EU, if we want to keep our leverage ... if we want show that we are a global actor, if we want to show we are serious about enlargement,” Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said on Monday.

But national diplomats preparing for Tuesday’s meeting failed to reach an agreement on a joint legal statement, which needs the unanimous backing of all EU states to be approved.

North Macedonia still stands the best chance of getting approval to start EU accession talks later this year, three diplomats said. Albania’s chances look less bright, they said.

Perceived as one of Europe’s most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, Albania - which is already a NATO member - has made only limited progress in combating money laundering, EU and U.S. officials say, despite firing corrupt judges and prosecutors.

Four other Western Balkan nations - Bosnia, Kosovo and the two front-runners Serbia and Montenegro - are also seeking EU membership. (Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Ed Osmond)

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