The United States has high hopes that the European Union will begin accession talks next month with North Macedonia and Albania and considers the two countries' EU path essential, the U.S. special representative for the Western Balkans told RFE/RL on February 10.
France and the Netherlands halted the opening of membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania last year, sparking disappointment and concern in the Balkans as Russia and China vie for influence in the volatile region.
"The immediate question on the agenda, the question at the European Council will be faced with in the meeting in March, is whether to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Matthew Palmer said.
"The United States very much hopes that the answer to that question is yes. We think both countries qualify on the merits. We think it's an important signal to send to the region. We think it's essential that both North Macedonia and Albania have a clear European path and a European perspective."
Palmer, who was appointed to the job in August 2019, voiced concern about Russia making inroads into the region and what he said were attempts to undermine international backing for the year-old Macedonian-Greek deal that ended a 27-year dispute between the two neighbors and removed Athens' opposition to its neighbor eventually joining NATO and the EU.
"We are concerned about Russian intentions with respect to the Western Balkans," Palmer said. "I would also point to Russian efforts to undercut support for the Prespa Agreement between Skopje and Athens as another example of malign activity on the part of the Russian state."
He added that Russia "prefers a Western Balkans that is fractious, that is divided against itself, that is suspicious, that has an element of chaos, an area where the Russians can turn the level of tension up and down like a rheostat to use as a wedge between the Western Balkans and the international community, and the Western community of nations."