The European Union's top enlargement official has voiced optimism that North Macedonia and Albania can deliver on the reforms required to join the bloc.
"I am very encouraged by my visits to both countries," Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said on February 18 in Brussels. "They do not give up on reforms...and you will see that they will deliver, and if they do that, you can be confident that there should be an opening of negotiations," said Varhelyi, who earlier this month visited the region.
"There is nothing but membership on offer," he added.
Varhelyi's remarks came after French President Emmanuel Macron, who blocked the opening of accession talks with Skopje and Tirana in October, said last week that he was willing to allow the two Western Balkan countries to begin membership talks if the European Commission gave them a positive review next month.
A green light from the commission would then set the stage for a summit in May in Croatia with EU leaders and all six Western Balkan candidate countries: Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and North Macedonia.
The latest developments come amid concerns in the EU over increasing Chinese and Russian influence in the region and a sense that the 27-member bloc is not doing enough to support the six countries' transition to becoming full-fledged democracies and market economies after the wars of the 1990s.
Macron's comments on February 15 at the Munich Security Conference were also likely to reassure other European leaders that France still backs expanding the EU.
The commission suggested reforms to the accession process along the lines of a French proposal made in November, after Macron refused to approve the start of membership negotiations at a summit in October, saying the process of admitting new members needed to change.
Varhelyi earlier this month proposed giving EU members the power to delay or reverse the accession process or to force candidates to restart entry talks in some policy areas.
France, the Netherlands, and Denmark are concerned about the EU's ability to bring in a region struggling with crime and corruption.
EU's Enlargement Chief 'Very Encouraged' By Reforms In North Macedonia, Albania