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25th Jul 2021

EU restarts enlargement after French hiccup

  • North Macedonia also preparing to pull down nationalist monuments in bid to join EU (Photo: Funky Tee)

The EU has agreed to open accession talks with two Western Balkan states in a "strategic" move to be rubber-stamped on Wednesday (25 March).

"We've reached a political decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia," Croatia's EU affairs minister Andreja Metelko-Zgombić said on Tuesday.

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"It's historic news for those two countries and by this we send an important message to all the Western Balkans," she added.

It was also "good news for the EU to be able to ... make a strategic decision at the time of such a big challenge [the coronavirus pandemic]," Metelko-Zgombić said.

"With this, we've put back on track the issue of enlargement," Olivér Várhelyi, Hungary's EU commissioner in charge of the dossier, added.

They spoke to press via videoconference after a virtual EU ministers' meeting.

The video-format meant the decision would have to be formally adopted by "written procedure", an EU legal mechanism, on Wednesday.

"When it's done and the conclusions are adopted, we have a valid decision on opening accession talks," Metelko-Zgombić said, speaking for the Croatian EU presidency.

Tuesday's breakthrough ended six months of uncertainty after France had vetoed North Macedonia talks last year.

The decision will be a fait accompli by the time EU leaders hold a video-summit on Thursday.

But the actual accession negotiations will start when EU states convene intergovernmental conferences (IGCs) with the two hopefuls.

The IGCs will happen some time after June, the pandemic allowing, when the European Commission expects to have finalised an EU negotiating mandate for the process.

In the meantime, the EU also has to agree legal details of a new enlargement methodology, with tougher rules for backsliding candidates.

And Albania will have to fulfil extra anti-corruption reforms before its IGC can go ahead.

Those were the conditions imposed by France on North Macedonia and by the Netherlands on Albania in return for giving the green light.

Last year's French veto caused concern Paris was against enlargement per se because North Macedonia had bent over backwards, including to change its name, to meet EU requirements.

"This was something impossible to imagine last October," Zgombić, the EU commissioner, said on Tuesday's positive decision.

A chorus of other EU and Western Balkan personalities also celebrated on social media.

"Good news in these gloomy times," German EU affairs minister Michael Roth said.

Austria was "happy", its chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, added.

The "EU's decision in this dire time is a symbol of its true strength," North Macedonia's foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov said.

"This is great news for the region," Kosovo president Hashim Thaçi also said.

Enlargement talks normally take between five and 10 years to complete.

Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are also in an official queue to join the EU. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have said they want to.

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