LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union is divided over whether to allow membership talks with Albania and Macedonia as anti-immigration sentiment rises in the bloc, but NATO is ready to welcome Skopje into the Western military alliance.
With broad support for membership talks from other EU governments and the European Commission, Albania and Macedonia hope Europe ministers will agree the go-ahead at a meeting on Tuesday in Luxembourg, which would clear the way for approval by EU government leaders at a summit on Thursday.
However, France and the Netherlands, with support from Denmark, are resisting and may seek further conditions such as more reforms to tackle corruption and organised crime in Albania and Macedonia, EU officials said.
After Macedonia and Greece resolved a decades-old dispute about the former’s name which had blocked the EU membership process, opening talks would mark the clearest step yet in the bloc’s attempts to renew its expansion to the six western Balkan countries after years of neglect for the region.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the U.S.-led alliance was likely to approve membership talks with Macedonia at a summit in July. Albania is already part of NATO and membership has proven to be a platform for joining the EU.
“I expect and I hope that the heads of state and government can agree to start accession talks,” Stoltenberg said as he arrived for a joint EU defence and foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg.
He said the agreement with Greece to change the name from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia was “an historic agreement which provides an historic opportunity” for Skopje to join NATO.
French President Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament in April he could not support EU enlargement without more internal reform of the bloc first, and diplomats say the French position has not changed.
Other diplomats say migration concerns are at the core.
“Reforms are expected before we can open negotiations because we have a high level of requirements,” said a French diplomatic source.
France and the Netherlands sent other EU governments a paper in May saying the lack of judicial reforms, endemic corruption and organised crime were reasons why Albania and Macedonia were not ready for EU membership talks, according to diplomats.
“Their view is that the conditions for opening accession negotiations are not there,” an EU diplomat said.
Two other EU diplomats and two EU officials said Macron’s deeper concern was that opening membership talks with Albania and Macedonia would play into the hands of far-right politicians who are gaining support with populist pledges to stop migration - including from relatively poor eastern European member states of the EU to the more prosperous western member countries.
“Macron feels that this opens a flank to the political right because of the reputation of organised crime in Albania. They don’t want to open this before European elections next year,” said an EU official who asked not to be identified, referring to next May’s vote for the European Parliament.
The EU’s chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker, who visited Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in March, has warned that the Balkans could face a return to war without any hope of joining the bloc.
The six countries - all of which bar Albania emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia - are considered future members.
Britain’s imminent departure from the EU and Turkey’s stalled membership bid prompted the Commission to propose an intensification of accession talks with the Western Balkans, even if the most advanced aspirants, Serbia and Montenegro, are unlikely to join before 2025 at the earliest.
While Germany shares French concerns about whether talks could start with Albania and Macedonia, Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to support expansion for geopolitical reasons and to counter growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
“France should see the strategic dimension of bringing the Western Balkans closer to EU,” a German government source told Reuters. “We argue that the opening talks are not the closure of accession negotiations.”
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich