Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s incoming president, has come out in support for accession talks with West Balkan countries, in a move defying French president Emmanuel Macron’s fierce opposition to enlarging the bloc.
Speaking in Berlin on Friday, Ms von der Leyen said Europe had “asked a lot of North Macedonia and Albania, [and] they’ve fulfilled it all”. “Now we must be true to our word and start accession talks,” she added.
The former German defence minister, whose nomination for the commission was pushed by Mr Macron, said it was in the EU’s interest to offer the West Balkans a European perspective. If it failed to do so, “others will fill the gap — China, or Russia, Turkey or Saudi Arabia,” she warned.
She also offered strong words of support for Nato, which Mr Macron described as suffering “brain death” in an interview this week. “I think that despite all the bumps in the road, Nato has proven itself to be a wonderful shield of freedom,” said Ms von der Leyen. “The history of Europe can’t be told without Nato.”
Mr Macron was the only EU leader to block accession talks for North Macedonia last month at an EU summit. He also rallied a small group of states including the Netherlands and Denmark to oppose Albania negotiating to join the bloc.
In an interview with the Economist released on Thursday, the French president said the bloc needed to reform its membership procedures, which he said were “no longer fit for purpose”.
“I don’t want any further new members until we’ve reformed the European Union itself,” he said in the interview. “In my opinion that’s an honest, and indispensable, prerequisite.”
Mr Macron’s harsh public comments about Nato and the Balkans have caused dismay in Berlin. Angela Merkel, German chancellor, on Thursday criticised the French leader’s “drastic words” against the transatlantic alliance, adding: “That is not my view of co-operation inside Nato.”
Speaking after meeting Ms von der Leyen on Friday, Ms Merkel reiterated her support for accession talks, saying she considered it “extremely important, for strategic European interests, that these countries don’t lose hope of one day being able to join the EU”.
Enlargement into the West Balkans would also help the bloc to tackle the vexed issue of migration, which will be one of the key topics facing Ms von der Leyen’s European Commission, Ms Merkel added.
Mr Macron in the interview also irked Bosnia-Herzegovina by singling it out as “the time-bomb that’s ticking right next to Croatia, and which faces the problem of returning jihadis”.
Zeljko Komsic, a Croat who currently chairs Bosnia’s inter-ethnic presidency, said in a response to the Financial Times that his country had not experienced “any problems with the small number of foreign fighters” returning to Bosnia. Larger countries like France “have their own problems with various types of extremist ideologies and groups,” he said.
Far more dangerous for Bosnia than returning jihadis, Mr Komsic said, was “the . . . security risk of leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina outside of the Euro-Atlantic space and Nato membership”.
In her speech in Berlin, Ms von der Leyen said the EU heads of government had held out the prospect of membership to the West Balkans as long ago as in 2003. “The point at that time was to anchor the European idea of peace in the region, which 20 years earlier had been rocked by bloody conflicts.”
“And the history of the EU since 1989 has proven how much it pays when our union opens its heart,” she said.