President Emmanuel Macron of France has issued a stark warning against hasty EU enlargement in a sign of the tough fight ahead for six western Balkan countries that want to join.

At a meeting in Sofia, Mr Macron said the EU had been too keen to expand since its last full summit with the western Balkan states in 2003.

“These last 15 years have shown a way that weakens Europe by thinking of enlarging it,” he told reporters. Mr Macron said he supported “anchoring the Balkans with Europe and towards Europe” but warned that the EU must “look with great prudence and rigour at any new enlargement”.

Diplomats say France is sceptical of a European Commission recommendation to open talks for Albania and Macedonia to join the EU. The bloc’s leaders could vote on that proposal at a summit next month.

The French president has previously said that the EU must reform itself before thinking of taking on new members. The accession of all six western Balkan states would expand the EU to 33 countries — compared with 15 in 2003 — even if the UK leaves as scheduled next year.

An EU leaders’ summit declaration balanced enthusiasm for enlargement among many new bloc members with the scepticism of some longer-standing states. It highlighted the importance to EU security of a strategically located region that has also drawn interest from capitals from Moscow to Beijing. It said the EU wanted to “support the region’s political, economic and social transformation”, including through “tangible progress in the rule of law, as well as in socio-economic reforms”.

France and other influential countries, including the Netherlands and Germany, have concern about crime, corruption and governance in the region comprising the five states of former Yugoslavia and Albania. This is despite reform efforts in several countries. Montenegro started accession talks in 2012 and Serbia in 2014, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia making up the sextet of potential joiners.

Speaking later on Thursday after the summit, Mr Macron said the western Balkan countries were “very much at the heart of Europe” but warned it would “not be serious” to start new accession talks without preconditions. That would include progress on managing migration and tackling corruption, he added.

Donald Tusk, European Council president, acknowledged there was scepticism over enlargement and said the summit attendees “didn’t pretend?.?.?.?that everything is clear and simple”. But he said the EU was “big enough and strong enough to adopt this project of enlargement with all problems and consequences”.

“I don’t see any other future for the western Balkans than the EU,” he said. “There is no alternative, no plan B. The western Balkans are an integral part of our continent.”

The summit also highlighted tension over some bilateral disputes, both between countries in the region, and with Greece, an EU member. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, did not attend the gathering because Madrid is one of five EU capitals that do not recognise Kosovo because of concerns about the way it seceded from Serbia.

But Greece and Macedonia said they had made further progress towards resolving a decades-old naming dispute. The two sides met at the summit to discuss Athens’ longstanding refusal to recognise its neighbour’s right to call itself Macedonia, which is also the name of a Greek region.

Michael Peel, Financial Times from Sofia

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