European Union ministers say they have approved beginning membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, with a top German official calling it "good news in these gloomy times."
"Congrats to Tirana+Skopje, it's well deserved," Michael Roth, Germany’s state secretary for European affairs, wrote on Twitter on March 24, after the agreement was reached during a videoconference.
The agreement must still be confirmed and approved in written form. That is expected to happen on March 25, although conditions posed by the coronavirus could delay that move.
No date has been set for accession talks to actually begin, but diplomats told RFE/RL that they will not start until the autumn at the earliest.
The decision to start the talks with the two Western Balkan countries has been long delayed and has caused a rift among EU members.
France, with support from the Netherlands and Denmark, urged a slower approach, arguing that the countries needed to make further reforms to reach EU governmental, economic, and rule-of-law standards.
Others have pressed to move quickly on bringing the two small states into the bloc as an effort to slow moves by Russia and China to increase their influence in the region.
"If we allow there to be a political vacuum in the Western Balkans, then others who do not share our values will try to fill this political vacuum," Roth said ahead of the March 24 talks.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi welcomed the bloc's historic decision on Twitter.
"Very pleased that EU member states today reached political agreement on opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. I wholeheartedly congratulate both countries," he wrote. "This also sends a loud and clear message to Western Balkans: your future is in EU."
Politicians in North Macedonia hailed the decision and said it would allow the country to focus on the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted life worldwide.
North Macedonia has reported 148 cases and two deaths, but most experts say ascertaining an accurate figure anywhere in the world is difficult because of the lack of testing.
Following the EU decision, Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski said in a statement that "today, we can be proud. Let us rejoice and come back and fight the coronavirus" in the country of 2.1 million people.
Former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev also praised the move, saying, "There are no obstacles or conditions anymore."
"Congratulations citizens, as we have managed to get on the road to NATO and the EU, so together we will deal with the contagion that is afflicting the world,” Zaev added.
It was as prime minister that Zaev came to agreement with neighboring Greece to change his country's name to North Macedonia, smoothing the road to NATO membership and potential EU entry.
Athens had long been angered by Skopje's use of the name Macedonia, saying it implied designs on a Greek province of the same name.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said in a statement to his compatriots that "today, I received a message for you -- the European Union's decision to open membership negotiations with Albania."
He said the action will open "concrete financial assistance for small businesses, families, and to deal with unemployment" in the country of 2.9 million people.
During membership talks, candidate countries must prove they are reaching EU standards in areas such as the free movement of goods, and in taxation, energy, and economic policies.