European Union member states have given a cautious green light to opening accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, requiring both countries to demonstrate progress on reforms before the first talks can begin next year.
Meeting in Luxembourg on June 26, EU foreign ministers agreed to set out "the path towards opening accession negotiations in June 2019," according to the final draft of their joint statement.
But they also required the two Balkan countries to demonstrate progress on reforms before the actual negotiations can begin at the end of 2019.
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.
Albania and Macedonia hope the decision will clear the way for approval by EU leaders at a summit on June 28-29.
The decision came amid divisions among the 28 EU member states over the issue, with France and the Netherlands, backed by Denmark, calling for more reforms in Albania and Macedonia before membership talks can kick off.
"It was a very difficult birth," conceded German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth in a tweet.
Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva of Bulgaria, which currently holds the EU presidency, said it was "an important day" for the two countries and "for the Western Balkans as a whole."
EU countries took a "strong position" signaling to countries in the Western Balkans that they had a "clear perspective toward the European Union," according to Austrian European Affairs Minister Gernot Blumel.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the ministers' decision "after 72 hours of stormy debate" as a victory. "This initial skirmish is won, and now the real battle begins," Rama tweeted.
Ahead of the Luxembourg meeting, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok acknowledged that both countries had made "important progress."
"But, at the same time, they are not there yet," Blok said. "We want to see a track record in the fight against corruption and the rule of law."
Speaking in Vienna, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev urged European leaders to continue "motivating" his country to reforms.
"Motivation by the EU is the leading force in the Western Balkan countries," he said.
On June 25, Johannes Hahn, commissioner for European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations, warned against delaying the start of membership talks with the two countries, stressing the importance of giving a "positive signal" to the whole Western Balkans region.
Hahn said at an EU-Montenegro intergovernmental conference in Luxembourg that Macedonia should be "rewarded" for signing an agreement with Greece earlier this month to end a 27-year dispute over the former Yugoslav republic's name.
"I think if this is not rewarded in a meaningful way, I think this will have an immediate and huge impact for the stability of the region," Hahn said.
Besides Macedonia and Albania, four other Balkan countries remain outside the EU: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia. Only Montenegro and Serbia have so far started membership negotiations with the bloc.