BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Germany has proposed starting EU membership talks with North Macedonia before the end of this year and agreeing in principle to launch the process for Albania, but without setting an exact date prior to Tirana meeting more conditions.
The plan, put forward to EU countries this week before ministers of the 28-strong bloc discuss it in mid-October, is a possible compromise for those in the EU trying to woo the Balkan countries closer but facing resistance from France, the Netherlands and Denmark to letting them in.
The EU was due to agree on talks with Albania and North Macedonia in 2018 and then again last June. But the decision was repeatedly delayed amid heated internal disputes as it also grapples with Brexit, the first-ever departure of a member.
More than a dozen EU states are pushing hard to open accession talks with the two countries from a region that sits on the bloc’s doorstep and is deeply scarred by the wars of the 1990s.
They warn of a creeping Russian, Chinese and Turkish presence in the region and, late on Thursday, received renewed support from top EU officials in Brussels.
“The European Union stands before a strategic choice,” said a joint letter by the new head of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, the outgoing chairman of EU leaders’ summits, Donald Tusk, and the incoming head of the bloc’s mighty executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. “We believe that now is the time to open accession talks with both countries.”
But the wealthy EU states have been reluctant, with France demanding reforms in the bloc first to let it tackle with more vigour and unity challenges from climate change to migration.
Germany’s previous opposition might be gone after the Bundestag last month voted in favour of membership talks with both Albania and North Macedonia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it a priority as she eyes leaving her post.
A draft of the EU ministers’ Oct. 15 decision, which was seen by Reuters, said: “In light of the progress achieved on reforms ... (the EU) decides to open accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia.”
It added the first so-called “intergovernmental conference”, or the actual initial meeting where the aspiring country and EU officials get together, “should take place by the end of 2019.”
It had the same lines prepared for Albania. But - while the EU applauds the historic name settlement between Skopje and Athens, which had for many years blocked Macedonia’s membership bid - many in the EU are deeply worried about Tirana’s track-record on corruption.
Following the vote in Berlin, Germany made a new, confidential proposal to the EU, which was also seen by Reuters.
While leaving the part on North Macedonia unchanged, it gave no date for the first intergovernmental conference with Albania, instead proposing a list of more reforms to be done by Tirana before such a meeting could take place.
They range from beefing up Albania’s courts to overhauling electoral laws to setting up a dedicated anti-graft body.
“Whether that could fly really depends on France,” said an EU diplomat.
Those following the case in Brussels say French envoys have relayed that President Emmanuel Macron has yet to make up his mind.
In the Netherlands, a parliamentary debate on the matter is due no sooner than Oct.15. Some in Brussels already expect Dutch diplomats to therefore decline any decision during the EU ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on the same day.
Any decision to start accession talks requires unanimity of all EU states and the Hague has been more positive on North Macedonia in the past, while opposed to talks with Albania.
If EU ministers fail to agree again, the matter could escalate to the Oct.17-18 national leaders’ summit in Brussels.
“Then it would be down to Merkel to steamroll Macron, if possible,” said a senior diplomat.
Some in Brussels expect France to demand even more conditionality if Paris were to eventually agree. Another possible compromise would give the green light to North Macedonia but not Albania.
Additional reporting by Bart Meijer and Stephanie van den Berg, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Angus MacSwan