Macedonia feels enlargement blues as Paris blocks EU status
The Republic of Macedonia appeared on Monday to be the first country to become a victim of the EU's enlargement fatigue, as France blocked a decision to grant it official EU candidate member status.
The candidate status, necessary for Macedonia to start accession talks with the EU, had been recommended by the European Commission in a report issued last month.
But French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy at an EU foreign ministers meeting yesterday (12 December) refused to approve the status, which means that the issue will now be forwarded to an EU heads of state and government meeting at the end of this week.
EU leaders, meeting on Thursday and Friday, already face tough talks over the bloc’s budget for the 2007-2013 period.
Mr Douste-Blazy said a premature decision on candidate status for Macedonia would send a "political signal" to public opinion in Europe that a "new wave of enlargement" was about to take place.
The French minister said his country wants to see a broad debate on the EU's financial and institutional preparedness for future enlargement first, before the decision on Macedonia’s candidate status can be taken next year.
"We cannot take a decision if rules are not clear", he stated, adding "What is the absorption capacity of the EU? How does the EU of 27 or more member states function?"
Mr Douste Blazy asked whether it is "the right time" to allow new enlargement when the EU has not been able yet to decide how to pay for its previous enlargement with 10 member states in 2004 in the 2007-2013 budget.
But the minister left open whether French president Jacques Chirac would use his veto against Macedonia at this week's EU summit.
Diplomats indicated that Mr Chirac could still approve Macedonia’s candidate status, possibly at the last minute of the summit after an agreement on the budget.
"Whether or not France will actually veto [Macedonia’s] candidate status will also depend on whether or not there is a budget deal", said one diplomat, who expected the issue to be decided at the end of the summit, even after the budget talks.
Asked by journalists whether the budget talks and the Macedonia issue were linked, UK foreign minister Jack Straw said that "it is obvious that for some countries there is a link here".
Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot said he was "not sure at all" that EU leaders could this week find agreement on the Macedonia status.
But he added that a compromise text could entail a firm decoupling of the candidate status from any commitment to open negotiations with Skopje, through the introduction of additional tough conditions for the actual accession talks to kick off.
Member states' ambassadors will meet in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the text.
The Netherlands itself, backed by Denmark, is pushing for the inclusion of extra safeguards that the candidate status will not automatically lead to the start of accession talks.
"It should be clear that the next step could be very far away", Mr Bot said.
Fall-out of the French and Dutch "no" votes
The tough French and Dutch stances on enlargement are closely linked to the negative outcomes of the referendums on the EU constitution in both countries, Mr Bot indicated.
"The French and Dutch peoples have told us to hold back", the Dutch minister said.
But in contrast to Paris, The Hague was prepared on Monday to grant candidate status to Skopje, not wanting to overburden the EU leaders' summit this week, while also seeking a clear recognition of Macedonia's record as a stable Balkan country.
In France, on the other hand, enlargement is seen to have played a bigger role in the referendum campaign than in the Netherlands.
Alain Lamassoure, a French member of the European Parliament, reminded Balkan politicians at a Brussels conference last week that after the EU accession of Croatia, France will hold a referendum on the accession of every single new member state.
An amendment to the French constitution, obliging the government to put further enlargements to a popular vote, has been adopted by the French parliament at the initiative of president Chirac.
In a bid to secure a "yes" vote to the EU constitution, Mr Chirac in the autumn of 2004 promised voters a separate poll on Turkish EU membership, which is highly unpopular in France.
But the French constitutional amendment also affects the EU bids of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Albania, and possible membership applications from Kosovo and Montenegro if they break away from Serbia.
"This opens up a new era", Mr Lamassoure said, describing the implications of the amendment.