By Robin Emmott and Gabriela Baczynska
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - France stuck to its hard line against European Union membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania on Tuesday, setting up a showdown between French President Emmanuel Macron and fellow EU leaders later this week in Brussels.
Europe ministers, making a third attempt since June 2018 to approve membership talks for the Balkan hopefuls, discussed in Luxembourg opening a path for Skopje and Tirana, with broad EU support and backing from the United States.
But just as those discussions were getting underway, a French presidency official in Paris said Macron's government would not agree to open talks now, even if Paris did support eventual membership for North Macedonia and Albania.
"These countries will be part of the European Union one day...but it is too early to open the legal process towards enlargement," the presidential official said, referring to the term for admitting new members.
In Luxembourg, Amelie de Montchalin, France's European affairs minister, was blunt, saying there could be no way forward before a reform in how and when candidates for membership are vetted on EU targets, which range from economic policy to human rights and the rule of law.
France says the EU faces too many challenges - including Britain's planned exit; China, seen as a "strategic rival"; security threats posed by Russia; and migration - to let in two more states from the Balkans, a region still scarred by the legacy of 1990s wars and struggling with crime and corruption.
But the French stance has raised concerns in Brussels about further delays in an already protracted process that could backfire by spurring Balkan states to cultivate closer ties with Russia and China.
The six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, all of which apart from Albania emerged from the 1990s disintegration of Yugoslavia, are considered future EU members.
"The first thing we need to talk about is how Europe must reform the way it does enlargement and negotiations," de Montchalin said, calling the process "an endless soap opera".
"Is the process efficient? From our point of view, no."
Unless an agreement is clinched in Luxembourg, ministers will leave a decision on Albanian and North Macedonian membership talks to EU government leaders, who will hold a two-day summit from Thursday.
While the Netherlands supports French wariness of membership talks for Albania, which is already a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance, many other countries, led by Italy, are deeply frustrated by the French position.
Germany has proposed a compromise by starting EU membership talks with North Macedonia before the end of this year and agreeing in principle to launch the process for Albania, but without setting a date before Tirana meets more conditions.
The European Commission, the EU executive that handles EU accession talks, said it was wrong to add more conditions because North Macedonia and Albania had met targets set by the EU governments.
"It's becoming harder and harder to provide a proper explanation (for the delay)," European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU membership bids, told Reuters. "If we agreed with our partners on steps to take and our partners are delivering, it is then our time to deliver."
Hahn pointed to Albanian reforms to root out bribery among judges, which many in the EU say are the most significant assault on judicial graft since the country of three million people emerged from communist isolation in the early 1990s.
North Macedonia, meanwhile, has resolved a long dispute with Greece over the country's name - changing from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia - and has cleared the way for NATO membership, probably in December.
"It's very important to give a political signal that enlargement is not dead," said George Ciamba, Romania's EU minister.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)