The European Commission proposed on Tuesday (17 April) to open EU membership talks with Albania and Macedonia, in line with its new focus on the integration of the Western Balkans.
The renewed interest in the region, which has made some progress in the past year in resolving disputes with neighbours and embraced a more reform-friendly agenda, coincides with concerns about the growing interest of non-EU countries to gain a foothold there, most notably Russia and China.
The proposal came in the Commission’s regular Enlargement Report but it needs to be approved by all 28 member states at the next European Council, and their consent cannot be taken for granted.
Macedonia had already been recommended for opening the talks in 2009 but was vetoed by its EU neighbour Greece. Athens objects to Macedonia’s name, which is the same as that of a northern Greek province. Twenty years of UN-sponsored talks have failed to produce a solution acceptable to both sides.
Macedonia has recently signalled readiness to make concessions and solve the name dispute. It was widely expected that Skopje’s goodwill gestures would be rewarded by an invitation to start accession talks.
For its part, Albania has been able to mitigate its internal divisions, although some nationalist statements from the country’s leaders have sometimes raised eyebrows among its NATO allies.
Prime Minister Edi Rama said in an emailed statement the enlargement report sends “a strong signal of encouragement to our country and our people, confirming that we are on the right path and setting the scene for the journey of reform that has only just begun”.
“Albania understands that accession is a long-term process that requires prolonged commitment – today’s positive recommendation is only one step in our journey. We very much hope that the member states will support the Commission’s recommendation,” Rama said.
Albania and Macedonia are part of the Western Balkan six, together with Montenegro and Serbia, which are already negotiating for membership, and the laggards Kosovo and Bosnia.
“The Commission recommended today that the Council decides that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania, in light of the progress achieved, maintaining and deepening the current reform momentum,” the Commission statement said
The Commission’s green light came with more strings attached, underscoring the need to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in the region.
“For the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, delivering on the urgent reform priorities will be decisive for the country’s further progress. For Albania, progress will be crucial in the key field in the rule of law, in particular across all five key reform priorities, and continuing to deliver concrete and tangible results,” the Commission statement said.
Montenegro and Serbia, the region’s ‘frontrunners’, are tentatively scheduled to join the bloc in 2025, at the earliest.
Bulgaria, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council from January to June, has made reviving Western Balkans’ EU prospects a top priority and will hold a summit with EU and Balkan leaders in Sofia on 17 May.