An EU ministerial meeting on Tuesday (18 June) ended up as a major disappointment for North Macedonia, which had nurtured hopes that its historic agreement with Greece on the country’s name would be rewarded with an EU accession ticket.
EU ministers who met at the General Affairs Council yesterday in Luxembourg, discussed the possible accession of Albania and North Macedonia to the EU.
But they finally decided to postpone the decision of opening talks to October 2019, dealing a major blow to both countries’ EU accession hopes.
Albania and North Macedonia had hoped that European ministers would give them the go-ahead at this meeting, in line with a European Commission recommendation issued on 29 May.
A positive decision would have opened the way for EU accession talks to be formally approved during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday.
On behalf of the Romanian EU presidency, the minister for European affairs George Ciamba said before the meeting that his country had done a lot to promote the enlargement process.
“Romania is now trying to find the way, that would be engaging, constructive and in the same time would keep the strategic balance and strategic importance of the Western Balkan for Europe. The stability of the region is a strategic interest of the Union,” Ciamba said.
The Czech Minister of Foreign affairs Tomáš Petříček also spoke strongly in favour of opening accession talks with the two Western Balkan countries. “It is necessary to send a clear message that these two countries did a plenty of reforms and fulfilled a lot of conditions demanded by the EU. Now it is our turn to keep with the promise and start with the accession talks,” said Petříček before the final session in Luxembourg.
North Macedonia made a giant leap towards EU accession when it resolved a 27-year-long dispute with Greece over its name. The so-called Prespa agreement of June 1018 opened the way for NATO and EU membership talks, which until then had been blocked by Greece.
Noting that the Council meeting took place on the first anniversary of the Prespa agreement, EU Foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said the time had come for the EU to deliver on North Macedonia’s accession hopes.
But the final statement agreed by the General Affairs Council fell short of making any promises.
“The Council strongly welcomes the historic Prespa Agreement, which represents a significant achievement, setting a positive example for the region and beyond. It commends the courage and determination of the parties involved,” the Council conclusions say.
The Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations with Bulgaria, signed by Skopje before the Prespa agreement, was also welcomed by the Council.
In the case of Albania, expectations about opening accession talks were even lower.
The Council will take the decision about Albania’s EU accession by October. One of the reasons is the internal political infighting in this country, which some interpret as a sign of immaturity in terms of democratic standards.
“We cannot ignore the domestic political situation and it is influencing the assessing of some member states. We hope that the period till October can change their opinion,” commented Ciamba.
“This is also a kind of wake-up call for everybody in Albania, government and also opposition,” added Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner responsible for accession negotiations.
At the Council meeting, the Netherlands confirmed its stance as the staunchest opponent of EU enlargement. The Dutch parliament has serious doubts about Albania’s EU accession, because of corruption and organised crime there. France, for its part, argues that the EU should first strengthen its institutions and decision-making before launching any further enlargements.
But Hahn disputed France’s stance, claiming that Europe’s internal cohesion and enlargement were not separate processes “which should take place one after the other”. According to him, both can happen in parallel.
The Council, meanwhile, appreciated progress made by Albania and North Macedonia in reforming their judiciary, fighting against corruption and tackling organised crime, as well as money laundering.
Cyprus, for its part, warned it would use its veto against any enlargement decision unless the EU takes action against Turkey, which is currently drilling for offshore gas in its economic zone.
Nicosia’s stance was criticised by Italian foreign minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi who told Reuters that issues raised by Cyprus “have nothing to do with enlargement.”
At the end of the day, the Council meeting only served to entrench divisions among EU member states about the bloc’s enlargement to Western Balkan countries.
With their EU accession process on hold, Western Balkan countries have turned to other foreign players such as Russia, Turkey, and China, which have made growing investments in the region.