The European Council is set to give the green light this week for starting accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, in a long-awaited move for the Western Balkans after the enlargement process was effectively put on hold last year.
“In light of the progress achieved on reforms and the fulfilment of the conditions” the Council “decides to open accession negotiations” with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania, read the draft Council conclusions, seen by EURACTIV.
According to diplomatic sources, last-minute changes were introduced over the weekend as Greece had demanded guarantees for the protection of its national minority in Albania.
The document is expected to be confirmed by ministers at the General Affairs Council on Tuesday (24 March), and then endorsed by EU leaders in a video-council on Thursday.
“This shows that the EU can move and take important decisions even in these crisis times,” a source from the Croatian presidency of the Council of the EU told EURACTIV, adding that “this fulfils one of the key goals of our presidency.”
European leaders were originally set to discuss enlargement at the 26-27 March summit, which was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and will be held as a video-conference only.
The next step is for the European Commission to draw up a so-called “framework for negotiations” that will have to be adopted by the Council.
The final text appears to be a watered-down version of a previous draft, which envisaged a June 2020 deadline for the submission of the negotiating framework, EURACTIV was told.
In the current text, the Council only “takes note” of the Commission’s intent to “begin the necessary preparatory work immediately”.
The decision should be a welcome reprieve for North Macedonia’s social democrats, who took the political responsibility last year for the potentially costly name change deal with Greece. Until last week, the social democrats were fighting a close electoral battle when the April general elections were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The enlargement process was effectively put on hold at the October 2019 summit, where French President Emmanuel Macron said ‘non‘ to opening the talks with North Macedonia and was joined by the Danes and the Dutch in blocking Albania.
Of the six Western Balkan EU hopefuls, Serbia and Montenegro have already started membership talks, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo lag further behind.
The new enlargement rules presented by the Commission on 5 February were supposed to placate France and inject credibility, predictability, dynamism and a political steer into the increasingly moribund process.
The strategy seemed to work when Macron told the Munich Security Conference last month that if the Commission report on the reforms in the two candidate countries was “positive and confidence is established, then we should be in a position to open the negotiations.”
In the wake of publishing the positive reports on 2 March, the Commission’s enlargement chief, Olivér Várhelyi, said that “the countries stepped up their work and delivered further tangible and sustainable results in the key areas.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]