North Macedonia, Albania and four other Balkan countries - Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia - are trying to join the world's biggest trading bloc following the ethnic wars of the 1990s that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia
Senior European Union officials, worried by growing Chinese and Russian influence in the Balkans, accused France on Friday of making a "historic error" by refusing to let North Macedonia and Albania start talks on joining the EU.
North Macedonia, Albania and four other Balkan countries - Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia - are trying to join the world's biggest trading bloc following the ethnic wars of the 1990s that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
But though the 28 EU governments see Balkan membership as inevitable one day, French President Emmanuel Macron opposed the start of entry talks with Albania and North Macedonia in what one envoy said was an emotional six-hour debate at an EU summit.
Macron later told reporters that the membership bids could not progress until the EU, with its complex decision-making structures, changed - though he did not say how it must do so.
He said the EU in its current shape was not able to face today's challenges or handle another financial crisis, let alone allow in two more states from the Balkans, a region scarred by wars in the 1990s and struggling with crime and corruption.
"We need a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process, a real credibility and a strategic vision of who we are and our role," Macron told a news conference, referring to the long process of admitting new members, which involves candidate countries meeting targets in areas such as the economy and law and order.
His position frustrated other leaders because Macron had long urged the EU to think strategically and go beyond internal squabbles, envoys said.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the executive European Commission, said France's decision was a "historic error".
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had used the same phrase earlier on Friday and added: "We had to start membership talks, I'm very disappointed."
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the EU gathering, regretted a "mistake" Chad been made.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped EU leaders could review the matter at a summit next year when Croatia holds the EU's rotating presidency.