European Union leaders have given North Macedonia and Albania formal approval to begin talks to join the bloc, two days after EU ministers gave the green light for the small Balkan nations to begin the process.
The move announced on March 26 is another step in the multiyear effort by the two countries to join the EU and comes after several disappointing delays caused by disagreement among bloc members over their readiness for membership.
No date was given for the commencement of formal talks, which can take several years before a candidate nation receives the right to join. Diplomats have told RFE/RL that talks will not start until autumn at the earliest, with the coronavirus crisis likely to cause further delays.
EU ministers on March 24 said they had approved beginning membership talks for 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 video conference.
The decision to start the talks with the two countries has been long delayed amid 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 nations into the bloc as an effort to slow moves by Russia and China to increase their influence in the Western Balkans.
"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 177 cases and two deaths, while Albania has had 146 registered cases and six deaths. But most experts say ascertaining an accurate figure anywhere in the world is difficult because of the lack of testing.
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.