EU divided over Balkan accession as NATO says Macedonia welcome

Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama (C) speaks with France's President Emmanuel Macron (2ndR) and Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite (2ndL) as they pose for a family photo during an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on May 17, 2018. European Union leaders meet their Balkan counterparts to hold out the promise of closer links to counter Russian influence, while steering clear of openly offering them membership. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Darko Vojinovic

LUXEMBOURG: The European Union is divided over whether to allow membership talks with Albania and Macedonia as anti-immigration sentiment rises in the bloc, but NATO is ready to welcome Skopje into the Western military alliance.
With broad support for membership talks from other EU governments and the European Commission, Albania and Macedonia hope Europe ministers will agree the go-ahead at a meeting on Tuesday in Luxembourg, which would clear the way for approval by EU government leaders at a summit on Thursday.
However, France and the Netherlands, with support from Denmark, are resisting and may seek further conditions such as more reforms to tackle corruption and organized crime in Albania and Macedonia, EU officials said.
After Macedonia and Greece resolved a decades-old dispute about the former’s name which had blocked the EU membership process, opening talks would mark the clearest step yet in the bloc’s attempts to renew its expansion to the six western Balkan countries after years of neglect for the region.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the US-led alliance was likely to approve membership talks with Macedonia at a summit in July. Albania is already part of NATO and membership has proven to be a platform for joining the EU.
“I expect and I hope that the heads of state and government can agree to start accession talks,” Stoltenberg said as he arrived for a joint EU defense and foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg.
He said the agreement with Greece to change the name from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia was “an historic agreement which provides an historic opportunity” for Skopje to join NATO.
French President Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament in April he could not support EU enlargement without more internal reform of the bloc first, and diplomats say the French position has not changed.
Other diplomats say migration concerns are at the core. “Reforms are expected before we can open negotiations because we have a high level of requirements,” said a French diplomatic source.
France and the Netherlands sent other EU governments a paper in May saying the lack of judicial reforms, endemic corruption and organized crime were reasons why Albania and Macedonia were not ready for EU membership talks, according to diplomats.
“Their view is that the conditions for opening accession negotiations are not there,” an EU diplomat said.
Two other EU diplomats and two EU officials said Macron’s deeper concern was that opening membership talks with Albania and Macedonia would play into the hands of far-right politicians who are gaining support with populist pledges to stop migration – including from relatively poor eastern European member states of the EU to the more prosperous western member countries.
“Macron feels that this opens a flank to the political right because of the reputation of organized crime in Albania. They don’t want to open this before European elections next year,” said an EU official who asked not to be identified, referring to next May’s vote for the European Parliament.