Brussels/Belgrade - The European Commission proposed stronger ways of sanctioning EU membership hopefuls if they backslide on their reform efforts, in a bid to unblock the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
France blocked the start of negotiations
In October, France in particular blocked the start of formal EU accession negotiations with Tirana and Skopje against the wishes of most other EU capitals, and despite a commission assessment that both Western Balkan countries had done the necessary homework. North Macedonia has changed its name at the European Union's behest, while Albania is conducting sweeping judicial reforms.
France insisted, however, that the EU must first change its enlargement process, while raising concerns - shared with some other capitals - that the countries had not done enough to deal with issues such as corruption.
One key French demand is that the membership process should be made reversible if candidate countries start to backtrack on their efforts to meet EU standards, as has been the case with Turkey in recent years.
In such cases, negotiations could be suspended entirely or in part, or EU monitoring could resume in areas where the bloc had already given a green light, according to the commission's proposal. EU funding and other benefits could also be scaled back.
North Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said his country does "not fear the introduction of reversibility... the accession process is there to transform the situation in the field for the better." He expects the proposal will deliver "a double-slam in the coming weeks: the launch of membership talks and a perfected process."
Albania looks forward to opening accession talks
"Albania stands ready to pursue substantive reforms and radical transformation in line with the principles of the new methodology and looks forward to opening accession talks within 2020," acting Albanian Foreign Minister Gent Cakaj wrote on Facebook.
EU officials hope that the 27 EU leaders will give their go-ahead for negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia at their regular March meeting, ahead of a key summit with all Western Balkan membership hopefuls in May.
Failure to do so risks undermining the EU's credibility and opens the door to influence from other powers, such as Russia and China, Brussels has warned.
The 27 EU Member States and Their Capitals
Macron welcomes the new accession concept
French President Emmanuel Macron's office greeted the new accession concept as "an important first step," with a source describing it as "a significant change and a positive signal."
Paris only wants to open talks once the process, and "the functioning of the European Union itself," has been "rethought," the source added.
Macron has previously voiced concern about EU enlargement, given the multiple internal challenges and the difficulty of forging consensus the EU27 already face.
An EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity that the ball is now in the Elysee's court: "The commission has built France a solid bridge. We now count on Paris joining the EU consensus and clearing the way for the launch of membership talks."
... it is a European issue
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi stressed that the changes are not just aimed at placating Paris, however, though the commission proposal echoes several changes proposed by France in November. "It is not only a French issue, it is also a European issue," he told journalists in Brussels, adding that the entire process had to be made more credible for EU states as well as candidate countries.
Other aspects of the proposal include involving member states more directly in the assessment of candidate countries' reform efforts, to "avoid any last-minute surprises," Varhelyi said, after several EU capitals had unexpectedly raised concerns over Skopje and Tirana.
To inject more dynamism into the talks, the 35 negotiation chapters - covering different reform areas - would be clustered into six groups which can each be processed together, potentially speeding up the overall process.
The commission also wants to improve predictability on both sides, spelling out expectations more clearly to candidate countries and highlighting the benefits of enacting reforms - and the negative consequences of failing to do so.
The underlying membership criteria are not due to change, however. If accepted, the revised methodology would apply to Albania and North Macedonia. Serbia and Montenegro, which have entered into membership talks, could also choose to adopt the revised system.