The European Commission presented its new enlargement strategy on Wednesday amid deep divisions over the accession hopes of North Macedonia and Albania.
"Today the college ¨[of Commissioners] has adopted a new methodology for the accession negotiations," said Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Várhelyi at a news conference.
France blocked the opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania last year, demanding a reversible enlargement process with a stronger focus on the rule of the law.
Netherlands and Denmark also shared France's reservations.
"The purpose of today’s proposal is to reestablish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans," Várhelyi said on Tuesday.
"While we are strengthening and improving the process, the goal remains accession and full EU membership."
The EU official said the new methodology was based on four principles: the accession process should be "credible", "more dynamic", "guided by a stronger political steer" and "predictable."
Focus on the rule of the law
On the first principle, Várhelyi said that Western Balkans countries needed to deliver more credibly, especially on the rule of the law.
"The focus on fundamental freedoms will be further strengthened, "Várhelyi said.
The Commissioner emphasised that EU member states would be able to monitor and review the accession process more strongly than before.
``"We have to make it clear that we can also go backwards," said Várhelyi, adding that `` `` in our public opinion and in our member states there is a very strong call that we need to be able to reverse also the negotiations.````"
Negotiations will focus on six dynamic thematic clusters, the EU official continued, with the timeframe of each cluster preferably limited to one year. Yet, he added, fundamental rights and the rule of law will take a central role, opening first and closing last.
Negotiations to open 'before Western Balkan summit'
The revised methodology is only one of the three tracks of the Commission's new strategy. Várhelyi said it would be followed up with the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
He expressed the hope these would start "ahead of the Western Balkans summit" set to take place in Zagreb in May 2020.
The third track involves an investment plan for the economic development of the region.
Initial reactions positive
As Várhelyi presented the Commission's new plans to MEPs, the largest political groups at the EU Parliament expressed their support for the methodology.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the proposal was a ````"good message'' to North Macedonia and Albania, which both were highly disappointed when they were turned down for opening talks in October.
North Macedonia hailed the new plans.
````"This renewed approach will result in a double victory in the coming weeks: opening negotiations together in an advanced process,'' North Macedonia foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov said in a written statement.
The Commission's proposals are likely to soften the reservations of France, the Netherlands and Denmark.
French Deputy Minister for European Affairs Amélie de Montchalin reported "very good discussions with Commissioner Várhelyi" during a press briefing in Brussels on Tuesday.
"France is asking for a gradual, concrete process which brings benefits on the ground. A reversible process, and a process which is politically steered. I think that the communications on Wednesday (by the Commission) will show that we have in all these areas a change of methodology, of paradigm, "she said.
Yet she warned that France won't automatically agree to open negotiations with Skopje and Tirana.
"We have to make sure, on the basis of the situation report that the Commission will present in March, that the conditions are met," she said.
The European Commission is due to publish in March an individual report for each of the six Western Balkan countries applying for membership - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia - on the state of the reforms carried out, respect for the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and fundamental rights.