Leaders of the EU institutions have condemned the bloc’s refusal to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania as a “historic mistake”.
In a blow to pro-EU politicians in the small Balkan states, EU government leaders missed a deadline to approve the launch of talks.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, said it was a “major historic mistake”, adding: “If we want to be respected, we have to keep our promises.”
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, described the impasse as a mistake. “It is not a failure, it is a mistake. I feel really embarrassed,” he told journalists at the end of a two-day summit in Brussels. “Both countries, they passed their exams; I can’t say this about our member states.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, led opposition to opening membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, putting him at odds with Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has championed the EU hopes of six Balkan states.
Denmark and the Netherlands also blocked the decision, although were open to considering the two countries separately. Both opposed opening talks with Albania, but suggested North Macedonia could get a green light by passing a law to safeguard the future of an independent public prosecutor.
Balkan states began their long journey to EU membership at a summit in Thessaloniki in 2003 when optimism after the end of the cold war was still high.
North Macedonia’s foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, suggested the EU was being dishonest. “The least that the European Union owes the region is to be straightforward with us,” he tweeted. “If there is no more consensus on the European future of the western Balkans, if the promise of Thessaloniki 2003 does not stand, the citizens deserve to know.”
North Macedonia had been led to believe the path to EU membership would be opened after it resolved a three-decade-long dispute over its name. The former Yugoslav Republic became North Macedonia in February after a historic agreement with Greece, which had blocked Skopje’s Nato and EU ambitions over the dispute.
Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, said the decision was “linked with an open confrontation within the EU itself”, on its enlargement process. He vowed to continue domestic reforms “not because Paris, Berlin, Brussels or all of them are asking for it, but because it is needed to turn our country into a European, functional one”, Associated Press in Tirana reported.
EU leaders had promised in June to take “a clear and substantive decision as soon as possible and no later than October 2019”.
Shortly before a ministerial decision was due this week, France announced it wanted to reform the EU’s enlargement process. The last-minute decision was greeted with scepticism by EU diplomats supporting enlargement, who suspected a ruse to delay a decision.
The French government has said it supports the “European perspective” of the western Balkan countries, but argues the current process is not credible.
Democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, fatigue after the Greek eurozone crisis, as well as a widespread view that Romania and Bulgaria were let into the EU too soon, has contributed to doubts about EU expansion in some of the club’s older members.