SKOPJE -- North Macedonia and Albania have both reacted positively to a new proposed methodology for admitting new member states, expressing hope that it will clear the way for Skopje and Tirana to begin formal membership talks this year.
"The purpose of today's proposal is to re-establish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans," Oliver Varhelyi, commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement, said on February 5 as he presented the proposals in Brussels.
The plan would give member states a stronger role in accession talks and calls for more incentives for well-performing aspirant states.
Meanwhile, backsliding or delays on required reforms could lead to a pause or reversal of the accession process, or even force EU hopefuls to restart entry talks in some policy areas.
Reforms were demanded by France blocking the start of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania last year and demanding changes to the bloc's enlargement process.
North Macedonia's foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said the proposed methodology would contribute to a "stronger political dimension of the process, as well as its dynamics, predictability, and credibility."
"More benefits for reformers and more sanctions for backsliders, based on a credible, objective assessment of progress is a step forward, " Dimitrov said.
The minister also expressed confidence that the proposed plan would result in the opening of accession talks between Brussels and Skopje in the coming weeks.
Albania's acting foreign minister, Gent Cakaj, said his country "stands ready to pursue substantive reforms and radical transformation in line with the principles of the new methodology."
Tirana "looks forward to opening accession talks within 2020," Cakaj wrote in a Facebook post.
French President Emmanuel Macron's office welcomed the proposed new rules as "an important first step" toward further enlargement.
The proposed plan is to be discussed by EU member states to have it ready for approval at a Brussels summit in March.
If approved, the new methodology would automatically apply to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia -- but not to Serbia or Montenegro, which have already started accession talks with Brussels.