Britain out, EU centering on Balkans for enlargement

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Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, delivers a speech during a plenary session of the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (Gian Ehrenzeller/Keystone via AP)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — 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 the recent objections to open enlargement talks with two Western Balkan nations.

The European Commission proposed on Wednesday to streamline rules to avoid further delaying the start of access negotiations when aspiring members have met the conditions for such talks.

“The purpose of today’s proposal is to reestablish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the proposal was a “good message” to North Macedonia and Albania, which both were desperately disappointed when they were turned down for opening talks in October.

There are worries that if the EU doesn’t open its arms for the warm embrace of membership, several nations in the strategically important Balkan region could turn its back and look for better relations with Russia and China right in the EU’s backyard. The bloc is already under pressure after losing the diplomatic and geopolitical clout of Britain, which left the bloc this weekend.

“EU enlargement is a WIN-WIN situation,” von der Leyen tweeted.

The issue has been especially contentious because even if Balkan nations look toward the 27-nation EU for their future, Western European nations want to slow any expansion for nations that may not be ready to take on full commitments on such issues as corruption and the rule of law.

Varhelyi said the proposed rules also included a big stick if and when aspiring member states veered away from democratic principles.

“We have to make it clear that we can also go backwards,” said Verhalyi, adding “that in our public opinion and in our member states there is a very strong call that we need to be able to reverse also the negotiations.”

North Macedonia and Albania were meant to be approved to start membership talks late last year, but especially France insisted on revamping the enlargement system first. The aspiring nations felt they were unfairly let down, convinced they had met the conditions, at great effort, to start the talks.

Now, North Macedonia’s initial reaction was positive.

“This renewed approach will result in a double victory in the coming weeks: opening negotiations together in an advanced process,”North Macedonia foreign minister NikolaDimitrov said in a written statement.

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 states 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.

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.

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Konstantin Testorides contributed from Skopje, North Macedonia.

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