French President Macron says he does not want "a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia" but neither does he want the European Union to enlarge before it has solved its problems at its current size.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday ruled out any expansion of the European Union until the bloc is reformed, as a top EU official warned that the volatile Balkans could face a return to war if countries in the region have no hope of joining.
The Balkans spiraled into conflict in the 1990s as former Yugoslavia broke apart, but ethnic and nationalist tensions continue to simmer more than 20 years on.
EU member states must agree unanimously for any country to become a member. Accession to the 28-nation EU has been a powerful driver of political and democratic reform in countries like Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro – which recently joined NATO – Serbia and its former territory of Kosovo.
But with Britain set to become the first country to leave the bloc next year, Macron told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France that "I will only support an enlargement when there is first a deepening and a reform of our Europe."
"I don't want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, but I don't want a Europe that, functioning with difficulty at 28 and tomorrow as 27, would decide that we can continue to gallop off, to be tomorrow 30 or 32, with the same rules," he said.
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But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose institution recommends whether countries should be allowed in, insisted that Europe's door must remain open.
"If we remove from these countries, in this extremely complicated region, I should say tragically, a European perspective, we are going to live what we already went through in the 1990s," Juncker said. "I don't want a return to war in the Western Balkans."
When he took over at the European Commission four years ago, Juncker vowed that there would be no EU enlargement during his term.
EU and Balkans leaders will meet in Bulgaria on May 17, but no country in the region is likely to be invited to join, even though some are involved in membership negotiations.
Turkey is also a candidate for membership and has been promised fast-track accession negotiations in exchange for ensuring that tens of thousands of migrants – many of them Syrian refugees – don't enter Europe from its territory. However, the talks are at a virtual standstill.
Countries like France, Germany and Austria would prefer some kind of "privileged partnership" with Turkey to letting it join.
Syria strikes an 'honour'
France, Britain and the United States carried out air strikes targeting chemical weapons sites in Syria to defend the "honour of the international community," Macron also said on Tuesday.
Macron said the allies had to act to defend global rules and accused Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad of being "at war with his people."
"Those that are shocked by images of women, of children who have been attacked by chlorine, we need to stand up to defend our rights. What are we going to say, our rights and principles just for us? No, that simply isn't acceptable," Macron said.
"Three countries have intervened, and let me be quite frank, quite honest – this is for the honour of the international community," Macron said.
He added that the strikes were conducted "within a legitimate, multilateral framework, and in a very targeted way without any human victim, not a single human victim, to destroy three sites where chemical weapons were being produced or processed.
"These strikes don't necessarily resolve anything but I think they were important," he said.
The French government said on Tuesday it was "highly likely" that evidence would disappear from the site of a suspected chemical attack in Douma in Syria before weapons experts arrive in the area.
"It is highly likely that evidence and essential elements disappear from the site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies," the French foreign ministry said, echoing concerns by the US that have been rejected by Russia.