A year ago, the European Union told two Balkan countries they could get the green light this month to start membership talks if they jumped through the right hoops.
The European Commission says both countries, North Macedonia and Albania, have done just that. But neither will get the go-ahead at a meeting of EU ministers next week, thanks above all to France and Germany. Paris is the leading skeptic when it comes to enlarging the EU while Berlin can’t make a decision because the German parliament has yet to take a view.
Opponents of starting talks cite the western Balkans’ deep-seated problems with corruption, organized crime and poverty and its recent history of conflict. Some officials also say that populist parties in Western Europe would seize on any move to bring the two Balkan countries closer to the bloc to whip up anti-EU feeling.
Diplomats say this Tuesday’s meeting of the EU’s General Affairs Council in Luxembourg will likely push a decision until later in the year — possibly to September or October. Some suggest at least North Macedonia may get the go-ahead at that stage while the prospects for Albania appear more uncertain.
EU diplomats are now in the midst of tortuous efforts to agree a text that will strike a balance between the views of the bloc’s 28 members and still offer hope to Skopje and Tirana that they may get the thumbs-up later this year.
One senior EU diplomat described the talks as “agitated,” underscoring how the western Balkans, a small patch of the Continent, evokes outsize emotions among EU member countries, more than two decades after the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart and also brought tensions between Western European capitals to the fore.
In a sign of just how sensitive the issue is, France and Germany even proposed that the phrase “the Council welcomes” the Commission’s recommendation to start membership talks be downgraded to the more neutral “the Council takes note” in the draft text, according to another diplomat, who was in the room during the discussions.