BRUSSELS (Reuters) – North Macedonia and Albania can deliver on the reforms required to join the European Union, the EU enlargement commissioner said on Tuesday, in the latest sign that the Balkan neighbors are set to overcome France’s freeze on their aspirations.
French President Emmanuel Macon, who blocked the opening of talks with Skopje and Tirana in October, said at the weekend he was willing to allow them to begin membership talks if the European Commission gave them a positive review next month.
“I am very encouraged by my visits to both countries,” Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi told a think-tank event. “They do not give up on reforms … and you will see that they will deliver, and if they do that, you can be confident that there should be an opening of negotiations.”
If allowed to go ahead with membership talks, the approval would set the stage for a summit with EU leaders and all six western Balkan candidate countries – Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and North Macedonia – in Zagreb in May.
It may go some way to assuaging concerns in the EU about growing Chinese and Russian influence in the six states and a sense that the bloc is failing to transform the countries scarred by the wars of the 1990s into market economies.
Macron’s comments on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference were also likely to reassure other European leaders that France still backs expanding the EU to new members.
“There is nothing but membership on offer,” Varhelyi said.
Macron had refused to approve the start of so-called accession negotiations at a summit in October, saying the process of admitting new members needed to change. One French minister called the accession process an “endless soap opera”.
This month, the Commission suggested reforms to the accession process along the lines of a French proposal made in November, giving EU governments more say and making it easier to stop or reset negotiations and freeze funds.
Denmark and the Netherlands, who supported Macron, are expected to drop their resistance, EU diplomats told Reuters.
France and its allies are concerned about the EU’s ability to bring in a region struggling with crime and corruption, anxious not to repeat what they believe was the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.
Membership talks, once underway, will take years.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott)