By Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron refused on Friday to let North Macedonia start talks on joining the European Union and led a group of leaders who blocked opening talks with Albania, despite concerns over Chinese and Russian influence in the Balkans.
North Macedonia, Albania and four other Balkan countries – Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – are trying to join the 28-nation political and trading group following the ethnic wars of the 1990s that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
But though member states see their eventual membership as inevitable, debate on starting the years-long accession process became emotional at an EU summit in Brussels and lasted into the early hours of Friday, an EU diplomat said.
Macron said the membership bids of Albania and North Macedonia could not progress until the EU changes how and when candidates are vetted on meeting accession targets which range from economic policy to human rights and the rule of law.
“He stuck to his position despite an attempt by Germany and others to draft a new position,” an EU diplomat said after talks which one envoy described as emotional.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said it was “an historic error”.
“We had to start membership talks, I’m very disappointed,” Conte told reporters.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said the accession of Balkan countries was an important strategic issue, adding: “We’ll see how to get back to this debate later.”
Croatia joined the EU in 2013. Warning of the risk of inflaming the region by failing to offer EU membership, the European Commission, the EU executive, wants other ex-Yugoslav republics and Kosovo brought into the EU fold to shield them from what they see as the growing influence of China and Russia.
They say blocking their accession damages the credibility of the EU.
In Brussels on the eve of the summit, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said 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.
North Macedonia’ foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, tweeted: “The least that the European Union owes the region is to be straightforward with us. If there is no more consensus on the European future of the Western Balkans … the citizens deserve to know.”
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 – German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Paris to at least allow it to start talks.
But all countries have to agree before approval is given for accession talks.
All countries except France 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 neighbours.
But 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 organised crime.
“It was 27 against one,” a second diplomat said of the support for North Macedonian membership talks.
Paris says the EU faces too many challenges to let in two more states from the Balkans, a region still scarred by the legacy of 1990s wars and struggling with crime and corruption.
The challenges include Britain’s planned exit: China, which is seen as a “strategic rival”; security threats posed by Russia; and migration. Albanians still regularly seek refugee status in France despite being considered a safe country.
A French official hit back at the criticism of Paris’s position, saying France was not isolated or unconstructive, and some countries had a strategic vision, and others did not.
“There is a counter-productive and unwelcome strategy to put pressure on France, the Netherlands and other countries,” the official said.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose, Marine Pennetier and Marine Strauss, Editing by Timothy Heritage)