BRUSSELS – Down one country with the departure of Britain, the European Union's executive proposed a new system for adding members in a move made all the more urgent by French objections to open enlargement talks with two Western Balkan nations.
The European Commission hopes the streamlined rules will avoid further delaying the start of accession negotiations when aspiring members to what is now the 27-country bloc 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, who were both desperately disappointed when their hopes for the swift commencement of accession negotiations were rebuffed in October.
And perhaps crucially, France acknowledged that the proposal was good, "a significant change, a big step in the right direction.”
“This is a major element that allows positions to move — not only France’s position,” said a top official at the French presidency, who asked not to be identified in accordance with Elysee customary practices.
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.
There are worries that if the EU doesn't open its arms, then several countries in the strategically important Balkan region could pivot instead to Russia and China. For a bloc that's just lost the diplomatic and geopolitical clout of Britain, that could be a hard pill to swallow.
“EU enlargement is a WIN-WIN situation," von der Leyen said in a tweet.
Enlargement is especially contentious in some capitals in the EU over such issues as corruption and the rule of law.
North Macedonia and Albania were left aghast when their hopes of starting accession talks late last year were dashed, with France insistent that the enlargement process was revamped first.
Both aspirants voiced their initial satisfaction at the developments.
“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.
And Albania’s acting Foreign Minister Gent Cakaj said the expectation is that membership negotiations would commence this year and that the country would continue its “reforms and the fundamental transformation in line with the new methodology.”
He added that the EU has its sights on the “ stability, development and democratization of the Western Balkans in general.”
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 state 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.
Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report.