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The EU Commission President called the Balkan countries “family” earlier this month, as she pledged to accelerate the membership accession of six countries to the bloc. But Mrs von der Leyen’s ambition for a larger EU was lambasted by French MEP Dominique Bilde.
Speaking in the European Parliament, the National Rally MEP claimed such a plan would see the “inevitable decline of the EU”.
Ms Bilde also claimed that with Brexit, the bloc has lost an important financial partner that would be irreplaceable with the Balkans’s struggling economies.
She said: “The enlargement process to the Western Balkans is a symptom of the democratic deficit of the EU.
“Indeed, 59 percent of the French are opposed to this. The figures for other member states, such as Germany and Austria, are similar.
“This massive rejection contrasts with the apparent fait accompli emanating from the European authorities. For example, the President of the Commission declared at today’s summit that the Balkans were already ‘part of the EU’.
EU news: Von der Leyen is pushing for the Balkans to join the bloc
“This enlargement is not only a democratic aberration, but also a social and economic disaster. First of all, because with Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina (excluding the Serbian Republic), the EU wild be integrating for the first time states with a majority of Muslims and, above all, with a radical imported Islam.
“In fact, the region sadly stood out for having the highest concentration of jihadists returning from Syria or Iraq in Europe.
“Moreover, while the EU has lost, with Brexit, a major net contributor and one of its economic engines, these countries are undeniably lagging behind in this area.
“Our industries will inevitably suffer from increased competition.
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“Albania stands out in this respect with the lowest minimum monthly wage in Europe.
“The textile sector, which is beginning a timid renaissance in my region of the Grand East, will soon be swept away by this massive dumping.
“In short, this senseless project confirms the inevitable decline of the EU. This decline is all the more obvious in view of the dynamism of the United Kingdom since its departure, defying all predictions.”
The European Union’s 27 leaders promised future membership to their six Balkan neighbours last month, restating a pledge first made 18 years ago, but they brushed aside calls for a 2030 goal for fear of a backlash at home over migration.
After weeks of deliberation, EU leaders agreed that Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania have a place in the world’s largest trading bloc if they fulfil the criteria on areas from judicial reform to economics.
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EU news: Von der Leyen called the Balkan countries ‘family’ earlier this month
But with the “enlargement process” blocked by various disputes in Brussels and Serbian political leaders reluctant to ever recognise Kosovo’s 2008 independence, many in the Balkans feel the EU declaration is an empty statement.
“The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans,” the final summit declaration said.
“The EU reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process,” it said, although leaders insisted that the bloc focus on “credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits.”
French President Emmanuel Macron struck a conciliatory tone, saying the Balkans were “at the heart of Europe” and deserved a pathway to membership.
Northern countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands fear a repeat of the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU.
Bulgaria is against North Macedonia, already a NATO member, joining because of a language dispute.
The EU is by far the biggest foreign investor and trade partner of the six countries that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars of the Nineties.
But an attempt by EU presidency chair Slovenia to make 2030 a target date for the six countries to join was unsuccessful and the bloc has also failed to make good on promises that are tangible to citizens, such as visa-free travel for Kosovo.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said setting a deadline for accession went too far for many EU states. “I don’t really believe in setting dates, I believe in making good on our promises: Once the conditions are met the accession can take place,” Mrs Merkel told reporters.
Taking the 27-nation club to 33 members would complicate its strained decision-making and require internal EU reform that few states want to embark upon, something that Macron and EU Council President Charles Michel acknowledged to reporters.
Additional reporting by Maria Ortega