Down one country with the departure of Britain, the European Union set out new criteria for adding new countries in a move made all the more urgent by the recent French and Dutch objections to open enlargement talks with two Western Balkan nations.
The EU’s executive commission proposed rules making it more difficult to further delay the access negotiations to start when aspiring members have met the conditions for such talks.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the proposal was a “good message” to North Macedonia and Albania, which both were desperately disappointed when they were turned down for opening talks in October.
The issue has been made all the more contentious because even if Balkan nations look toward the 27-nation EU for their future, Western European nations want to slow any expansion for nations that may not be ready to take on full commitments on such issues as corruption and the rule of law.
At the same time, there are worries that if the EU doesn’t open its arms for the warm embrace of membership several nations in the strategically important Balkan region could turn its back and look for better relations with Russia and China right in the EU’s backyard.
“EU enlargement is a WIN-WIN situation,” von der Leyen tweeted.
North Macedonia and Albania were meant to be approved to start membership talks late last year, but especially France insisted on revamping the enlargement system first. The aspiring nations felt they were unfairly let down, convinced they had met the conditions, at great effort, to start the talks.
The EU hasn’t added a member state since Croatia joined in 2013. It started out with six nations in 1958 and lost its first member states when Britain pulled out last weekend.
Over the past dozen years, as first the financial and then the migration crisis hit the continent, the appetite for taking in new, poorer nations has dwindled.
The EU is hoping that a breakthrough for Albania and North Macedonia can be found in March. The bloc also has a major Western Balkans summit planned for May.