The European Union agreed a compromise on Tuesday (26 June) whereby it would open negotiations to join the bloc with Albania and Macedonia in June next year, provided a string of conditions on rule of law, crime and corruption are met.
“Member states set out the path towards accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Albania in June 2019,” the Bulgarian presidency of the EU announced on Twitter after 10 hours of debate.
— Ekaterina Zaharieva (@EZaharievaMFA) June 26, 2018
— EU2018BG (@EU2018BG) June 26, 2018
Austrian EU affairs minister Gernot Bluemel said he had asked the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to prepare the groundwork for opening accession talks “but of course certain conditions have to be met.”
Progress should include “further tangible and sustained results” on reforms of the judiciary, security services, and public administration, as well as cracking down on corruption.
First long discussion on enlargement, at EU ministers meeting. Sweden supports to open accession negotiations with FYR Macedonia ?? and ?? Albania. The Commission should report on reform progress on Rule of Law ahead of first step. pic.twitter.com/2BzKs1cFGd
— Ann Linde (@AnnLinde) June 26, 2018
Austria takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency in July.
The unexpected outcome, despite broad EU support, showed French President Emmanuel Macron’s determination to postpone the decision until after European Parliament elections in May, for fear of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, diplomats said.
It also puts a brake on the momentum Germany and EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker had sought in the Western Balkans to counter Russian influence by offering six countries a path to EU membership.
The negotiations could begin after the European parliamentary elections next year if the two candidate countries continue to make progress on reforms demanded by the EU, especially concerning the fight against organised crime and corruption in Albania.
The decision to set a date for starting talks was taken by the bloc’s European Affairs ministers during a meeting in Luxembourg which saw reservations expressed by France and the Netherlands, according to European sources.
France and the Netherlands are doing their utmost to stop or delay EU accession negotiations with Macedonia and Albania. https://t.co/Ndn81u9soM
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) June 26, 2018
The agreement to open talks was negotiated by Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn, one of the sources said.
“It was a very difficult birth,” conceded German minister Michael Roth in a tweet.
Es war eine sehr schwere Geburt! https://t.co/hDuob7BtQa
— Michael Roth MdB ?? (@MiRo_SPD) June 26, 2018
Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn twitted that the decision is crucial for the EU’s own credibility.
Glad that @EUCouncil sees the light on #Enlargement conclusions, esp. on #Albania and the future #North #Macedonia, after long debate. Path twds opening #accession talks in June 19 clear. Key signal to t region that progress is rewarded. And crucial for t #EU's own #credibility. pic.twitter.com/cWOD1XZ7Ti
— Johannes Hahn (@JHahnEU) June 26, 2018
A diplomatic source told AFP that the recent agreement between Athens and Skopje to resolve their name dispute, settling on the Republic of North Macedonia for the ex-Yugoslav republic, helped to convince some of the most hesistant EU states to move ahead.
However, the name change must still be approved in a referendum which if rejected by Macedonian voters would mean that “its invitation to join NATO would be cancelled and its negotiations with the EU would be stalled,” warned Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
— Georgi Gotev (@GeorgiGotev) June 26, 2018
NATO is expected to extend an invitation to Macedonia to join the alliance during its 11-12 July summit, but accession will take place only if the referendum is successful.
Speaking in Vienna, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev urged European leaders to continue “motivating” his country to undertake reforms.
“Motivation by the EU is the leading force in the Western Balkan countries,” he said.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama also hailed the ministers’ decision “after 72 hours of stormy debate” as a victory. “The results of our huge reforms finally led even the sceptics to accept that Albania and Macedonia are ready to negotiate,” Rama tweeted in English.
After 72 hours of stormy debate, Albania made it to port: A date for EU talks to begin. The results of our huge reforms finally led even the skeptics to accept that Albania and Macedonia are ready to negotiate. This initial skirmish is won, and now the real battle begins????
— Edi Rama (@ediramaal) June 26, 2018
However, opposition leader Lulzim Basha said Albania would be turned away in a year if it did not fight crime and corruption.