In a major blow to the hopes of the two Balkan countries, the European Council – preoccupied with Brexit – on Thursday failed to give Albania and North Macedonia a date to start EU membership talks.
In a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement on the matter, amid fading hope, the Council moved the issue of enlargement to Friday’s last session of the council.
The round table in Brussels that among other things will be dedicated to enlargement starts at 9.30 am, after which the Commission is expected to announce its conclusions at a press conference.
But, given French opposition, on Thursday evening European Council President Donald Tusk sounded reserved about a breakthrough.
“I did everything I could to support North Macedonia and Albania but we still have some members [that are] sceptical on the accession talks,” Tusk told North Macedonia’s Telma TV in Brussels.
Earlier that day, the signals coming from Brussels were pessimistic.
“The signs don’t suggest there will be a decision [on enlargement]”, the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told POLITICO this afternoon.
“I deeply regret it because I believe these countries [Albania and North Macedonia] have made enormous efforts to get closer to the European Union, so it’s very important that they get a positive signal,” Von der Leyen added.
Speaking at the Bundestag on Thursday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Europe to “keep its promise” to North Macedonia and Albania and send signal they are on track to becoming part of the European club.
But Merkel warned that the chances that EU leaders would resolve their differences at the summit were thin. Merkel spoke after Wednesday’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, where she reportedly tried to soften his known opposition to enlargement.
Macron did not comment on enlargement on Thursday. But the day before he insisted again that the EU needed to reform the accession process first, in make it reversible, in case aspiring countries backtrack along the path.
Macron said he could not tell French citizens that his country had approved EU accession talks for the two Balkan countries when they stll had many problems left to solve, especially Albania, which is the second largest source of asylum seekers in France.
After meeting the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama insisted that now the problem lay in the EU, not in the Balkans.
“Hahn was crystal clear. We have done what was asked. But apart from what we did and what we need to do, we are in a situation where the European Council must decide what its members want and what they do not want to do for their family, having in mind that one important member of the family [France] wants a different approach to the entire [enlargement] process,” Rama said.
North Macedonia insisted that its hopes were not yet dashed.
“I would not say I am sure that our request for a start to talks will be rigidly rejected,” President Stevo Pendarovski said on Thursday, adding that he, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov and European Affairs Minister Bujar Osmani were still “lobbying till the last moment so that we can get formulations that would value our efforts”.
Zaev in Brussels on Wednesday urged EU leaders to not close off the EU perspective for his country, after it fulfilled tough conditions set by the EU, including settling a long-running dispute over its name with Greece.
Zaev also said a negative signal from Brussels could shake his pro-EU Social Democrat-led government, which took power in 2017 on promises to re-open the country’s Euro-Atlantic path.
While Zaev’s Social Democrats on Thursday clarified that they have not discussed early elections, the opposition has already demanded snap polls as soon as possible, should the country faces a negative outcome in Brussels.