Brussels – European Union leaders failed Friday to agree to open accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia in an embarrassing fall that could risk igniting the volatile Balkan region.
Both countries hoped to receive a green light to begin negotiations to join the European club, a process that could take several years.
The European Commission, which oversees the entry negotiations, insists that both have met all the admission criteria. EU leaders promised a final decision by the end of October.
For now, a decision is unlikely until May 2020 at the earliest.
French President Emmanuel Macron will not allow new countries in the 28-nation bloc until his enlargement procedures are improved, while the Netherlands opposes Albania's bid and disputes the commission's assessment.
“The overwhelming majority wanted to open accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania. However, this decision requires unanimity and yesterday there was no unanimity, ”said EU Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the meeting.
“Both countries passed the exams. I can't say that about our member states, ”he said.
The non-decision, he added, was "a mistake."
As Britain prepares to leave the EU, its 27 partners have been striving to show their unity. However, decision-making on important issues can be held hostage by only a few member countries.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the failure to open the EU enlargement process "will be remembered as a historic mistake."
“I told my colleagues that this was a commitment to history. In 1400, these territories fell under the Ottoman Empire. After World War II, they fell into the communist bloc. Their desire is to enter Europe, ”Conte told reporters.
"I hope despair does not lead to the deepest suffering."
And former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose decision to support North Macedonia's name change in an effort to nullify years of tension between the two countries lost him, tweeted that failure “is a message of weakness and defeat. for the European project. . "
The constant expansion of the EU over the years has complicated decision-making in the world's largest trading bloc, and the "enlargement fatigue," as some have called it, has begun. Conversations about Turkey's membership, for example, are practically frozen.
The EU has always said that the association is based on the merits of a candidate.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama lamented the impasse. He said that "it is linked to an open confrontation within the EU itself" over its enlargement process and internal debate.
“The process of European integration will continue. Not because Paris, Berlin, Brussels or everyone is asking, but because it is necessary to transform our country into a functional, European, ”Rama said on a talk show on Thursday after returning from Brussels.
In a televised speech, President of Northern Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski called on the country not to be "disappointed".
“This is not a time for disappointment and apathy, but it is time for national unity. I am convinced that if we are working together we will succeed, "said Pendarovski.
"We have the right to be part of a common European home."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned in May that any failure to recognize the two countries' efforts "undermines stability and seriously discourages reform".
The warning came shortly after Serbia put its troops on high alert when heavily armed Kosovo police fired tear gas and arrested about two dozen people in Serbian-dominated northern Kosovo in what they called an operation against The organized crime.
Colleen Barry in Milan, Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, Konstantin Testorides in Athens, and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.
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