BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Senior European Union officials, worried by growing Chinese and Russian influence in the Balkans, accused France on Friday of making a “historic error” by refusing to let North Macedonia and Albania start talks on joining the EU.
North Macedonia, Albania and four other Balkan countries - Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia - are trying to join the world’s biggest trading bloc following the ethnic wars of the 1990s that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
But though the 28 EU governments see Balkan membership as inevitable one day, French President Emmanuel Macron opposed the start of entry talks with Albania and North Macedonia in what one envoy said was an emotional six-hour debate at an EU summit.
Macron later told reporters that the membership bids could not progress until the EU, with its complex decision-making structures, changed - though he did not say how it must do so.
He said the EU in its current shape was not able to face today’s challenges or handle another financial crisis, let alone allow in two more states from the Balkans, a region scarred by wars in the 1990s and struggling with crime and corruption.
“We need a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process, a real credibility and a strategic vision of who we are and our role,” Macron told a news conference, referring to the long process of admitting new members, which involves candidate countries meeting targets in areas such as the economy and law and order.
His position frustrated other leaders because Macron had long urged the EU to think strategically and go beyond internal squabbles, envoys said.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the executive European Commission, said France’s decision was a “historic error”.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had used the same phrase earlier on Friday and added: “We had to start membership talks, I’m very disappointed.”
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the EU gathering, regretted a “mistake” had been made.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped EU leaders could review the matter at a summit next year when Croatia holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
The move also received criticism from outside the EU, with the U.S. State Department saying in a statement: “We are disappointed the European Council did not recognize each country’s very strong reform efforts by agreeing to open accession negotiations at this time.”
Croatia joined the EU in 2013. The European Commission wants other former Yugoslav republics and Kosovo brought into the EU fold to shield them from what they see as the growing influence of China and Russia.
After Skopje agreed to end a dispute with Greece over the country’s name - changing from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia - Germany’s Merkel urged Paris to at least allow it to start talks.
“When we promise something, set certain specifications, Europe needs to be predictable ... I think it’s in our interests to have these countries bound into the European Union. If you look at the map, you see how important this is,” Merkel said.
Macron said EU countries could show more meaningful support for the region with investments and by deepening cultural ties.
On the eve of the summit, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev came to Brussels to warn that China and Russia would “fill in the vacuum” left by the Europeans and urged EU leaders “not to fade out the bright stars” of the European Union flag.
All countries have to agree before approval is given for accession talks. Over dinner at the summit, everyone except Macron backed opening membership talks with North Macedonia, which is judged to have met EU targets for a host of reforms and ending disputes with its neighbors.
There was slightly less support for Albania. France won support from Denmark and the Netherlands in its resistance to giving Albania’s bid the green light, citing a need to deep measures to tackle corruption and organized crime.
Additional reporting by Michel Rose, John Chalmers, Gabriela Bacynska, Philip Blenkinsop, Marine Strauss and Makini Brice in Washington, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alistair Bell