TIRANA, Oct. 17 – The foreign ministers of European Union member states meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday failed to reach a decision concerning the opening of membership talks with Albania and Northern Macedonia, delegating the matter to a European Council meeting, attended by the heads of member states and governments.
At the end of the meeting, Finnish Foreign Minister Tytti Tuppurainen expressed frustration over the failure to reach a unanimous decision on two countries in a region she described as an “EU neighborhood.”
However, she was optimistic that an agreement will be reached at the European Council meeting later in the month.
Outgoing Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn also spoke in frustrated tones.
“This is not a moment of glory for Europe. I still hope there can be a positive decision this week and membership talks with Albania and Northern Macedonia can be opened,” Hahn said, as 25 out of 28 member states were in favor of opening accession negotiations.
“The vast majority of member states backed our recommendation, and yet we are where we are. I do not want to blame anyone, but it is not a moment we can be proud of. A further postponement would damage the credibility of the EU in the region,” he said, apologizing to the citizens of Albania and Northern Macedonia.
“Tirana and Skopje did what they had to do. They undertook painful reforms that in most of our countries would not be possible,” Hahn stressed.
In fact, the lack of a decision among the foreign ministers seemed to be something the Albanian government was already expecting.
In a video message distributed through his Facebook page, Prime Minister Edi Rama, analyzing opposing attitudes among member states, before the conclusion of foreign ministers’ meeting, said that “however, the last word has not yet been spoken and these days’ intense efforts until the European Council meeting, where the decision is to be taken, aim to reconcile the positions of both sides in anticipation of a key outcome of the talks between Germany and France, which are key.”
Rama insisted that decision-making was not related to what Albania and Northern Macedonia have done in terms of reform progress.
“Decision-making has a fundamental bearing on what the members of the union want, or do not want to do, with the EU reform and with the negotiation methodology with the candidate countries, and whatever EU reform they agree on should not prevent Albania, Northern Macedonia and the countries of the Western Balkans as a whole from continuing their reforms, thanks to the negotiation process,” Rama emphasized.
Tuesday’s discussions at the Foreign Ministers meeting began with a clear division between member states.
On the one hand, most of them, headed by Germany, were in support of opening accession talks with Albania and Northern Macedonia.
As German Minister for Europe Michael Roth confirmed before the start of the meeting, “Germany’s stance is crystal clear, as the Bundestag vote has determined.”
The German Bundestag approved on late September the conditions placed by the centre-right Christian Democratic CDU/CSU, which agreed to vote in favor of a conditional opening of accession talks with Albania.
Among the conditions placed for Abania, some include long-standing ones like the functionality of the Constitutional and High Courts and the drafting of an electoral reform, while two are completely new – the punishment of anyone who has participated in vote-rigging and a final decision on the legality of the June 30 local elections once the Constitutional Court starts working again.
On the other hand, there is a small group of countries, led by France, which are not in favor of Albania opening accession negotiations.
Ahead of the meeting, French Secretary of State for European Affairs Amelie de Montchalin confirmed Paris’ position that the whole enlargement process should be reviewed again. “Europe must first reform talks on enlargement. We are concerned about the process. Is it efficient? In our view, it is not. And we have many countries that support this idea of revising talks through a reorganization. On the other hand,” she added, “we need to make sure the reforms required to open the talks are real. Not only that they have been voted, but also implemented.”
Montchalin stressed that France does not oppose the European perspective of the Western Balkans.
“But things have to be done in a credible way,” she said.
For its part, the Netherlands has also been particularly critical of Albania and this was reaffirmed today, ahead of the meeting, by Dutch Foreign Minister Steph Blok.
“Our position is that every country should be valued on the basis of merit. Both countries have made a lot of efforts. Regarding Northern Macedonia, we consider that an important step should be taken, such as the law on the independence of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, and if this condition is met then we think that accession negotiations can begin. Regarding Albania, we think that there is still work to be done and that the country is not ready for the opening of negotiations,” said Blok.
A day after the meeting failed to produce a definite decision regarding the two Western Balkans countries, Rama and his N. Macedonia counterpart Zoran Zaev flew to Brussels, where heads of member states will meet again to discuss, among others, the region’s European perspective.
In a video message via Facebook, Rama explained that he and Zaev would meet with the “prime ministers of the socialist and progressive EU governments in a format specially created by the European Socialist Party in view of the need to have more allies at the table the next evening.”
He said he was “neither optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome of this process”, pointing out that “he is doing his best to get Albania the ‘YES’ it deserves.”