The European Union has agreed to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje resolved a long dispute with its EU neighbour Bulgaria.
The 27 member states have “just agreed to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia”, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said on Twitter on Tuesday.
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“We have taken another important step towards bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU,” he said after the green light in a meeting of EU envoys in Brussels.
We have taken another important step towards bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU. It's a great success of our Presidency.
— Petr Fiala (@P_Fiala) July 18, 2022
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his North Macedonian counterpart Dimitar Kovacevski were expected in Brussels to formally start the accession talks.
Rama on Tuesday shared a tweet by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had visited Bulgaria last month in an effort to overcome Sofia’s blockade before the summit in Brussels.
“I welcome the vote of the Macedonian parliament paving the way for the first accession conferences of the European Union with North Macedonia and Albania,” Scholz said. “We want you as members of the European Union and will be at your side all the way!”
The announcement comes after North Macedonia and Bulgaria on Sunday signed a French proposal that would make Macedonian an official language in the EU, as well as provide other guarantees.
Bulgaria had until recently blocked any progress for accession talks because of a dispute between the countries over a long list of linguistic and historical issues.
The dispute also stalled Albania’s bid to become a member of the 27-nation bloc, due to a long-held policy that the ambitions of both countries to join the EU be treated together.
Under pressure from France, which held the EU presidency until July 1, the Bulgarian parliament last month agreed to lift its veto in exchange for EU guarantees that North Macedonia will meet certain demands on contentious issues.
North Macedonia was designated as a candidate for EU membership nearly 20 years ago and had already worked through big differences with Greece in order to join NATO in March 2020.
Albania was awarded candidate status by the EU in 2014.
In an interview with Politico last month, Rama had been pessimistic about the likelihood that Macedonia would acquiesce to accession talks.
“I don’t have any expectation. I think nothing will happen,” he said.
A long process
The launch of the process, which is expected to take years, is part of a broader enlargement policy that signals the increased strategic importance of the Western Balkans to the EU following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On February 28, 2022, shortly after it was invaded by Russia, Ukraine applied for EU membership.
In a landmark June 23 decision, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate granting of candidate status to Kyiv.
The EU also gave candidate status to Moldova, another former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine.
The decision to award the “European perspective” rather than formal candidate status to Georgia was hailed as a significant accomplishment by the government, while critics viewed it as a polite way of turning down Tbilisi’s bid for candidacy.