EU Seeks to Appease Macron With Plan to Tighten Accession Rules

(Bloomberg) -- European Union government envoys in Brussels and the bloc’s executive arm sought to accommodate Emmanuel Macron’s appetite for reform with tighter rules on countries looking to join the bloc and a broader debate on how to make the EU more effective.

The European Commission proposed an overhaul of the expansion process Wednesday in a bid to revive the candidacy bids of Albania and North Macedonia which Macron vetoed last year. The plan puts more focus on “fundamentals,” such as the rule of law and functioning democratic institutions, when assessing candidate countries, though it doesn’t envisage new legislation.

EU Seeks to Appease Macron With Plan to Tighten Accession Rules

France and the other 26 EU members already have plenty of opportunities to veto the accession process which involves prolonged negotiations over years or even decades. Any member state can block a candidate’s progress at any point in the process.

By reaffirming the focus on “negative consequences” and “reversibility” if candidate countries backtrack on the required reforms, the commission is aiming to provide enough political cover for Macron to drop his opposition to membership talks with the two countries from the western Balkans.

EU governments are wary of further delays as the prospect of membership is seen as anchoring fragile Balkan states to a path of democratic reforms. When Macron vetoed the process last October, he earned an unusually strong rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Commission’s approach is a step in the right direction toward North Macedonia and Albania eventually joining the EU, a French official said, cautioning that this was a long-term objective. France will seek a clear position on whether membership talks must be opened for the two Balkan nations by May, when EU leaders are due to discuss the matter over a special summit in Zagreb, Croatia, the official said.

Europe’s Future

On another front prompted by the French president, EU government envoys in Brussels unsuccessfully sought a common stance on the “Conference on the Future of Europe” -- a two-year deliberation intended to invigorate European unification.

The concept is based on ideas laid out by the French president in 2017 from Pnyx, a hill that was the center of Athenian democracy almost 2,500 years ago. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also championed the initiative since taking office last year.

Diplomats involved in the discussions said the scope, structure and aims of the process are unclear, while EU institutions are at loggerheads over which one will be in the driver’s seat. Most member states want to make it clear from the start that the Conference won’t lead to changes to EU treaties, a toxic issue after the traumatic experiences at the start of the century, when citizens rejected treaty changes in referendums.

France is leading a small group of member states that say treaty changes shouldn’t be excluded, according to a diplomat familiar with the deliberations, while Paris is also the main backer of ambitious institutional reforms, such as transnational lists of candidates for European elections.

Macron’s supporters in Brussels say that the French president is the only EU leader pushing the bloc -- traditionally immersed in inertia -- to discuss its strategic direction. For critics, his ambition is unrealistic and disruptive and doesn’t help the decision-making process.

Past experience also shows that pioneering proposals often hit a roadblock of competing national interests in Brussels.

The latest example is Macron’s idea for a joint euro-area budget, which -- after years of negotiations -- ended up with less than 20 billion euros to be spread among the currency bloc’s 19 economies over seven years.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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