Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called on the EU to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania next year, challenging France’s move to block the process of enlargement to the Western Balkans.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Mitsotakis took issue with President Emmanuel Macron’s decision in October to veto new accession negotiations calling it a mistake. “I hope that this mistake is going to be corrected”, he said.
Speaking ahead of a visit to London for a Nato summit this week, the centre-right Greek premier also criticised Mr Macron’s description of the alliance as “brain-dead”. While some of the French president’s concerns were valid, the terms he used could be counter-productive, Mr Mitsotakis said.
“Sometimes the language itself is also important, and it ends up bringing about the opposite results,” he said. “It’s one thing to say Nato is in need of reform, and it’s completely different to actually say that Nato is brain-dead.”
“I do agree that Europe as a whole needs to develop more defence capabilities, but discarding Nato as a pillar of peace in the post-world war two world goes too far for my taste.”
This week’s Nato summit will take place against the backdrop of transatlantic tensions over US commitment and European burden-sharing and anger over Turkey’s Syria offensive and its rapprochement with Russia.
Mr Mitsotakis said that Greece had “its issues with Turkey” — which Mr Macron has strongly criticised for its Syria incursion without consulting its Nato allies — but still preferred to be able to discuss them with Ankara within the Atlantic alliance.
While in opposition, Mr Mitsotakis opposed the so-called Prespa agreement under which North Macedonia agreed with Athens to change its name in return for unlocking a path to EU and Nato membership. But he promised to stick by the deal once it was ratified, and since he took power after sweeping to victory in elections in July he has supported Skopje’s bid to start EU accession talks.
Asked about Russian interference in the Western Balkans, Mr Mitsotakis said: “I was worried, I am worried, and I will continue to be worried. That is why I think that the decision taken at the [European] Council needs to be revisited in 2020.”
Mr Macron’s decision to veto further EU enlargement infuriated other capitals, including Berlin. Mr Mitsotakis urged him to approach EU enlargement in the Western Balkans as a geopolitical objective much as his predecessors in Paris had done in promoting Greece’s accession four decades ago.
“If we look at the big geopolitical context, it is very clear that the European path needs to be kept open for all Western Balkan countries, provided they meet the requirements, this is not an automatic process, otherwise this void is going to be filled. And I also take some cues from Greece’s story, in 1979 Greece [concluded negotiations to become] a member of the European Economic Community, because a French president, at the time, took a bold decision, looking at the bigger geopolitical context, that Greece had to belong to Europe in order to overcome the trauma of the junta.
“Was Greece ready to join at the time? Who knows. And of course the process was very different at the time. But it was a geopolitical decision, it was a most important decision for the future of the country, in retrospect.”
But Mr Mitsotakis said he strongly supported Mr Macron’s push for eurozone reform. The Greek leader said he feared the new European Commission, which takes office this week, would not attribute enough importance to the subject.
Greece exited its painful bailout programme last year and its weakened economy is slowly recovering.
“We should not forget about eurozone reform simply because we’re not faced with a crisis,” he said. “You build a roof when it’s not raining.”