BRUSSELS -- The European Commission recommended that the European Union launches membership talks with Albania and Macedonia, as the French president ruled out any expansion of the bloc until it is reformed.
EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said on April 17 that both Albanian and Macedonia “have done a lot in the last couple of months and this should be acknowledged.”
“As a colleague of ours said, if they deliver we have to deliver and this is exactly what happened today,” he said during the presentation of the commission's report outlining progress and recommendation for the six Western Balkan countries that remain outside the EU.
The report noted that opening accession talks with Albania and Macedonia was dependent on those countries "maintaining and deepening the current reform momentum."
It is the first time the European Commission recommends opening EU accession negotiations with Albania, which became an official EU candidate country in 2014.
However, the commission has recommended commencing negotiations with Macedonia every year since 2009, but EU member states in the council -- most notably, Greece -- have always blocked talks due to the name issue that has soured relations between Athens and Skopje ever since Macedonia became independent in 1991.
Athens has objected to its northern neighbor using the name Macedonia, contending that implies territorial claims on its own northern province of the same name. Negotiations between the two countries have gathered pace this year, fostering hopes of finding a compromise that will unblock Skopje's path to eventual EU and NATO membership.
Skopje has also survived bitter political infighting that culminated in April 2017 when several hundred protesters stormed parliament and beat up several lawmakers, including the current prime minister, Zoran Zaev.
Reacting to the European Commission’s recommendation, Zaev said the move takes Macedonia "a step closer to the EU."
"It means that the political crisis is behind us," he also said.
Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati welcomed the decision as a "Great day for Albania."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that she was “positive and optimistic” about chances of Serbia and Kosovo reaching a legally binding agreement on normalizing relations -- a precondition set out in the report for both countries to move forward in the EU accession process.
Mogherini, who acts as a facilitator in the talks between Belgrade and Pristina, noted that “the perspective and possibility of advancing and reaching an agreement are there.”
“And I strongly believe that the current leadership on the two sides and the populations are aware that this is the time to move forward with determination, with a sense of compromise, and with a view to having a better situation for both Pristina and Belgrade,” she added.
Opening accession talks needs to be approved by all EU member states, and getting that approval might prove difficult.
Speaking before the European Parliament in Strasbourg hours after the commission unveiled its recommendation, French President Emmanuel Macron said that enlargement needed to be preceded by reforming the EU at its current size.
"For my part I will only defend an enlargement once there has been a deepening and a reform of our Europe," he said.
"I don't want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, but I don't want a Europe that, working with difficulty at 28 and tomorrow at 27, decided that it could continue to run at 30 or 32 tomorrow with the same rules," Macron said.
With reporting by dpa