The European Union's enlargement commissioner has visited Macedonia to formally announce the start of preparations for the Balkan country to open accession talks with the bloc next year.
Johannes Hahn on July 17 congratulated Macedonia for recently signing a deal with Greece resolving a decades-old dispute over the country's name. He urged the public to vote in favor of the deal, which changes the name of the country to North Macedonia, in a referendum this fall.
"This sets a strong example for others in the region to strengthen good neighborly relations" and is "an important contribution to peace and stability in Europe," Hahn said.
The deal was key to allowing Macedonia to start the EU accession process. The bloc's member states agreed last month to open membership talks with Albania and Macedonia next year if the two nations continue with reform progress.
Macedonia still must deliver promised reforms in overhauling its judiciary, fighting corruption, and promoting media freedom, as demanded by France and the Netherlands in agreeing to start the accession process next year.
Hahn also visited neighboring Albania on July 17, welcoming its "first promising results of reform priorities" in the court system and urging "further tangible results in the fight against corruption."
In both countries, Hahn launched the screening process, a detailed exercise conducted by the European Commission "to prepare your country to start negotiations in June 2019."
It helps the countries to understand EU laws and enables the commission to evaluate their preparedness to take on the obligations of EU membership.
Earlier this month, NATO invited Macedonia to start membership talks to become its 30th member. That is also conditioned on Skopje completing ratification of its name deal with Greece.