By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France told its European Union peers this week it was against launching membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania for now, diplomatic sources told Reuters, casting a shadow over the countries' ambition to integrate with the West.
More than half of the EU's 28 member states, as well as its top officials in Brussels, are pushing to reward the two Balkan states for reforms by agreeing to start accession talks.
They warn of Russia, China or Turkey taking advantage of a "strategic vacuum" in the troubled region should the EU fail to maintain tangible prospects for the countries there.
But Paris says the EU faces too many challenges right now to let in two more states from the Balkans, a region still scarred by wars fought in the 1990s and struggling with crime and corruption.
France says the EU needs to reform from the inside first to tackle with greater vigour and unity such challenges as climate change and migration, and that the two hopefuls must carry out further reforms before the start of talks can be approved.
"They are not there yet. We are asking them to make additional efforts," a French official said. "Negotiation cannot be opened in October 2019, we will need to reassess the situation somewhere in 2020."
Unanimity among the 28 member states is required to launch accession talks.
EU ministers will discuss the matter again in Luxembourg on Tuesday before national leaders meet in Brussels for a summit on Oct.17-18. The move was already delayed repeatedly.
"This is very frustrating for most of the member states. Our credibility is at stake," said a diplomat from a country willing to open the doors to the Western Balkan candidates.
"North Macedonia and Albania have done a lot. Yes, a lot more remains to be done but opening membership talks is just the first step, the process would take years and they would have to fulfil all the criteria before they are allowed in."
Sources said the Netherlands and Denmark were also clearly opposed to Albania's bid when EU ambassadors discussed the matter behind closed doors in Brussels on Thursday, though the Dutch have signalled potential flexibility on North Macedonia.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said on Tuesday Skopje needed to pass legislation to set up an independent public prosecution body. "For the Netherlands that would have to pass in order to open accession talks," he said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)