Anger over EU’s ‘historic mistake’ on Skopje, Tirana

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his Albanian counterpart Edi Rama review the guard of honor during a welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Brigades in Tirana, Albania. (Reuters)
Updated 18 October 2019

Anger over EU’s ‘historic mistake’ on Skopje, Tirana

  • A handful of countries led by French President Emmanuel Macron again blocked membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania
  • EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters he felt ‘really embarrassed’ but urged the two countries not to lose heart

BRUSSELS: The EU has made a “historic mistake” that risks destabilising the Balkans, senior officials warned Friday, after a handful of countries led by French President Emmanuel Macron again blocked membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania.
There was widespread frustration and disappointment, particularly among eastern European countries keen to broaden the EU club, at the failure of the 28 leaders to agree to start formal accession negotiations with Skopje and Tirana.
Leaders were deadlocked after some seven hours of heated backroom wrangling at a Brussels summit, with France alone in rejecting North Macedonia but joined by Denmark and the Netherlands in refusing Albania.
“It’s a major historic mistake and I hope it will only be temporary and won’t become engraved in the collective memory as a historic mistake,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said.
Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner who has led efforts to push the two countries to reform to fit EU norms, said it had left the bloc’s credibility damaged “not only in the Western Balkans but beyond.”
“This is a matter of extreme disappointment,” he tweeted.
“To refuse acknowledgement of proven progress will have negative consequences, including the risk of destabilization of the Western Balkans, with full impact on the EU.”
North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski urged his people to push on with reform despite the disappointment, while his Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov urged the EU to come clean about its true intentions.
“If there is no more consensus on the European future of the Western Balkans... the citizens deserve to know,” he tweeted.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU leaders would look again at the matter before a summit with Western Balkans leaders in Zagreb early next year.
The summit deadlock came days after EU ministers hit a similar impasse at talks in Luxembourg — following two earlier delays by EU countries on making a decision.
Apart from France, all the other EU states accept that North Macedonia has made enough progress on reforms — including changing its name from Macedonia to appease Greece — to start talks.
But Albania has less support, with the Netherlands and Denmark joining France in voicing serious reservations about its efforts against corruption and organized crime.
Austrian Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein said the summit failure was “extremely regrettable.”
“I have spoken to the two prime ministers to express my great disappointment, and they are also extremely disappointed,” she told reporters in Brussels.
“This is not a good sign for the solidarity of the EU or the stability of the region.”
EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters he felt “really embarrassed” but urged the two countries not to lose heart, saying he had “absolutely no doubt” they would one day join the bloc.
“Both countries, they passed their exams, I can’t say this about our member states,” Tusk said.
The European Commission has said both countries have done enough to at least begin talks, but Macron now says this should not happen until the whole accession process has been reformed, arguing that it does not work properly.
But diplomats suspect the French are playing tough for domestic political reasons linked to immigration, and there is frustration that Macron appears to be trying to move the goalposts.
“These countries deserve it, they fulfil the criteria, the momentum is right,” said one diplomatic source.
“It’s not fair to change the rules of the game in the middle of the game.”
Another said “there’s no logic to it. It’s incoherent — an excuse.”
After the earlier failure in Luxembourg another diplomat accused France of “repeating the same stupid arguments again and again,” warning Paris would bear “responsibility for the consequences of this.”
Politicians in North Macedonia and Albania have warned that their people’s patience with the EU is not unlimited and repeated rejections risk emboldening nationalist and pro-Russian forces.


Philippines begins termination of US deal

Earlier, Duterte said he would give the US a month to restore Dela Rosa’s visa. (AP)
Updated 25 January 2020

Philippines begins termination of US deal

  • The move comes after Washington’s refusal to issue a visa to ally of President Duterte

MANILA: The Philippines has started the process of terminating the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows the deployment of US forces to the country to conduct military exercises, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo announced on Friday.
The move comes one day after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to do away with the agreement if the US did not reinstate the visa of his political ally and former police chief, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa.
Although in a speech on Thursday night the president said he would give the US one month to restore Dela Rosa’s visa before terminating the VFA, Panelo told reporters the process had already begun.
“The President feels that we cannot sit down and watch idly,” he said, adding he had relayed the matter to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin.
Locsin, in a Twitter post on Friday, confirmed he had called Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana “to start the process of terminating the VFA.”
Lorenzana, in a statement on Friday evening, said that he would discuss with the president “the various scenarios concerning the possible termination of the VFA, and what future actions may be undertaken by the Department of National Defense (DND) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) regarding this matter.”
The defense chief said he could understand why the president was angered by the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa, over alleged extrajudicial killings in connection with the government’s anti-drug war.
“It is a direct affront to (the president) being the architect of the drug war upon his assumption of office,” the defense chief said.
He noted that Duterte ordered Dela Rosa when he was installed as police chief in 2016 to launch the drug war, and promised to back him. “He is just being true to his promise,” Lorenzana stressed.
Dela Rosa himself said details surrounding the revocation of his US visa remain unclear to him. He added that it “might be related” to the anti-drug war.
The Philippines Department of Justice said it was studying the “proper procedure to terminate the VFA.”
Responses from Philippine lawmakers have been mixed.
“In the absence of a Philippines Supreme Court ruling on the president’s power to unilaterally break a treaty or bilateral agreement like the VFA, without the consent of a 2/3 supermajority vote of the members of the senate, the president can do that without the senate’s approval or consent,” Sen. Panfilo Lacson said.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the VFA termination would work in favor of China, and so did not come as a surprise.
According to Lorenzana: “The termination of the VFA may be unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, and it is well within the right of the government to do so if it determines that the agreement no longer redounds to our national interest.
“Such a termination does not need the approval of the Philippine Congress. All that is required is that a notice of termination be served to the US government. The termination shall take effect 180 days after the date of the notice,” the defense chief stressed.