Paris believes the Brussels bloc faces too many challenges right now to let in two more states from the war-scarred Balkans, but has reluctantly agreed to preliminary talks. “We are waiting for the European Commission report in March and depending on that, if the results are positive and confidence is established, then we should be in a position to open the negotiations,” M Macron told a security conference in Munich.
His comments look set to end his veto on the two Balkan countries’ EU membership and also reassure other European leaders that Paris still supports EU enlargement.
The 42-year-old centrist had refused to approve the start of accession negotiations at a summit in October, insisting the enlargement process needed to undergo deep reform first.
Paris argues the bloc faces too many challenges right now to let in two more states from the Balkans, a region scarred by ethnic wars in the 1990s and riddled with crime and corruption.
But M Macron also warned enlargement was not a miracle cure for the bloc’s difficulties in speaking with one voice and that more members also meant the need for a bigger EU common budget – a proposal northern EU states reject.
He said: “It doesn’t work at 27 (EU members) so do you think it will work at 32 or 33? We are not coherent… The implicit strategy is that we think of Europe as a big market but not a political power with collective preferences and a minimum of convergence.”
The European Commission, for its part, is worried by growing Chinese and Russian influence in Albania and North Macedonia and has repeatedly reprimanded Paris for blocking talks.
Earlier this month, however, the Commission suggested giving EU governments more say in the process and making it easier to stop or reset negotiations and freeze funds, a key French demand.
Serbia and Montenegro also hope to join the EU but the enlargement process has been stalled amid concerns about immigration and the strains of Brexit.
The United Kingdom officially left the EU on January 31, dealing a hammer blow to the bloc.
With Britain’s departure, the EU has lost its second biggest economy, the second biggest contributor to the Commission budget and more than 15 percent of its total GDP.
Post-Brexit negotiations are scheduled to begin in March, but the two sides have already set out clashing visions of their future relationship that could result in the most distant of ties.
The bloc insists there should be a level playing field over the long term on social, state aid and environmental standards and has warned the UK against undercutting its rules.
The Government, however, says it does not need to accept the bloc’s rules in order to strike a trade deal.
“There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules … any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this month.
“Are we going to insist that the EU does everything that we do as the price of free trade? Are we? Of course not,” he said in a speech in London.
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