German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to reassure Western Balkan nations that support for their membership in the European Union remains strong, stressing that it is in the bloc’s “strategic interest” to bring in the new members.
Merkel told a Western Balkan summit in Poznan, Poland, on July 5 that concerns expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron that the countries’ governance mechanisms become more efficient should not delay accession talks.
"I share President Macron's view that the EU's working mechanisms must be improved," she said.
"I don't see that as an abandonment of the accession talks."
She added that the accession process for Balkan nations aspiring for membership -- Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia -- was sufficiently lengthy to allow time for improvements to be made.
Speaking at a news conference as the summit concluded, Merkel singled out North Macedonia's "courage" in trying to overcome divisive issues with its neighbors, especially a dispute over its name with Greece.
Athens opposed the country’s use of the name Macedonia, saying it implied territorial designs on the Greek province of the same name. A compromise agreement was reached, leading Skopje to change the country’s name to North Macedonia.
"That was a huge step. We waited for years for this step and we are very relieved," Merkel said.
"I look optimistically toward the autumn" for the opening of membership talks, she said.
Last month, EU member states postponed a decision on whether to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania until October, amid resistance from some bloc members, including France and the Netherlands.
The latest EU strategy for the region suggests membership for Montenegro and Serbia by 2025, but officials have said that goal is "extremely ambitious."
Polish President Andrzej Duda, who hosted the Poznan summit, criticized the EU for delaying accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia and urged the bloc to offer the Balkan states a clear path toward EU membership.
The Balkan states should not be asked to participate in a race "where they cannot see the finish line,” Duda said on July 5.
Some EU leaders worry that too many delays on the EU’s part could allow Russia, Turkey, and China to increase their influence in the region.
"Russia has used a variety of instruments to exercise -- often pernicious -- influence in the region," the Europe Policy Advisory Group said in a report last month.