By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union governments on Tuesday delayed by at least a year a decision to allow membership negotiations with Macedonia and Albania after France and the Netherlands faced down Germany and demanded more reforms.
The unexpected outcome, despite broad EU support, showed French President Emmanuel Macron's determination to postpone the decision until after European Parliament elections in May, for fear of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, diplomats said.
It also puts a brake on the momentum Germany and the European Union's Chief Executive Jean-Claude Juncker had sought in the Western Balkans to counter Russian influence by offering the six countries a path to EU membership.
EU governments will "set out the path towards accession negotiations in June 2019", for Macedonia and Albania, according to a document agreed by the bloc's 28 Europe ministers at what diplomats said was a long, fraught meeting in Luxembourg.
"It was a very difficult birth," Germany's EU minister Michael Roth said of the compromise decision.
Germany, Austria, Sweden, Slovakia and many other EU countries had hoped for an agreement on Tuesday that would give clear approval for membership talks to start. EU leaders were due to have signed off at a summit on Thursday in Brussels.
Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia all hope to join the European Union and are considered future members by many in the bloc.
While membership talks with Serbia and Montenegro are under way, Albania, which is already a member of NATO, and Macedonia, which has reached an agreement to resolve a dispute over its name with Greece, had won the support of the European Commission, which recommended that membership talks be opened.
Even with the delay, Macedonia's deputy prime minister for European Affairs, Bujar Osmani, said on Twitter his country was now "on the path to open the accession negotiations next June".
Macron, backed by the Netherlands, has said the bloc must first reform itself before taking on new members, although EU diplomats say Paris is mainly concerned about stoking anti-immigrant sentiment at home.
The rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain, which turned many Britons against the European project, have made so-called EU enlargement more difficult, officials say.
The Dutch parliament has approved opening EU membership talks with Macedonia after an agreement with Greece to change the country's official name from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia.
But the Dutch government was unwilling to move before France, diplomats said.
In their statement, EU ministers said both Albania and Macedonia needed to do more on judicial reforms, endemic corruption and organised crime. Depending on progress next June and another report by the Commission, which oversees membership talks, EU governments could formally open negotiations at an so-called intergovernmental conference by the end of next year.
Both countries have to show "a track record both in improving the rule of law and fighting organised crime", Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told reporters. "We'll look carefully at next year's Commission report to judge whether we see this progress," he added.
Many European countries, including Austria which will chair the EU rotating presidency from July, want to send a signal to Albania, Macedonia and other Western Balkan countries that the way to EU membership is still is open, especially as Macedonia looks set to be welcomed into the NATO alliance in July.
"There has been a lot of progress. It only enforces our point that the Western Balkans should have a clear membership perspective," Austria's EU minister Gernot Bluemel said.
(Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alison Williams)
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Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 01:06 AM