Only days after the leaders of the European Union’s main institutions put pressure on the bloc to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania by “no later than this month”, France pushed back hard against Europe’s top policy advisors and ministers when it refused to commit to opening negotiations during talks in Luxembourg about the two Balkan nations’ future membership in the 28-member EU.

A decision on membership talks for Albania and North Macedonia will be left to EU government leaders during a two-day summit that begins on 17 October, but as that session is already going to have a full agenda with Brexit and Turkey’s ongoing invasion of northern Syria, a further delay is quite possible.

Europe’s ministers were making their third attempt since June of last year to approve membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania amid broad EU support and the backing, if not pressure, from the United States.

In the Luxembourg meetings a number of scenarios, including ‘decoupling’ North Macedonia and Albania in the accession process, were examined but found no consensus amongst the delegates.

Just as the day’s discussions were getting underway, an official from the French presidency said Emmanual Macron’s government “would not agree to open talks now”, even if Paris did support eventual membership for North Macedonia and Albania as “it is too early to open the legal process toward enlargement”

Amelie de Montchalin, France’s European Affairs Minister, who was in Luxembourg for the talks, said there could be no way forward for either country until the EU fully reforms the process for vetting potential candidate countries in the fields of economic policy, human rights, and rule of law.

“The first thing we need to talk about is how Europe must reform the way it does enlargement and negotiations,” de Montchalin said, adding, “Is the process efficient? From our point of view, no.”

Along with the Netherlands and Denmark, France has repeatedly expressed open scepticism about Albania joining the EU out of fear that the Albanian government of Edi Rama has done little to ease domestic political instability, organised crime, and the stalling of some reforms.

Supporters of North Macedonia’s accession contend that the current administration of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has completed a series of key reforms that were demanded by the EU, including changing its name to end a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece.

The French government, however, has historically been sceptical about EU enlargement in general, argues that the accession process needs to be reviewed before admitting new countries. Paris has also argued that the EU must deepen integration among existing members and reform unwieldy decision-making processes before it contemplates adding new countries.

Supporters of starting talks with Skopje and Tirana say that any further delays when it comes to making a decision about the future of NATO-member Albania and North Macedonia – which is in the final stages of joining NATO – grossly undermines the bloc’s already damaged international credibility, puts the pro-European governments of non-EU countries in peril, and risks boosting the standing of strategic rivals Russia, China, and Turkey in the Western Balkans.

The six Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – all of which, apart from Albania, were once constituent parts of Yugoslavia, are considered future EU members, with the Serbs and Montenegrins, considered the frontrunners by most enlargement observers.

Brussels first promised the Balkan nations that they could one day join the European Union in 2003 – less than three years after the end of the last of the bloody wars that broke out after Communist-era Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s. Since then, Croatia and Slovenia have both been admitted into the EU, while Montenegro and Serbia have each opened accession talks.