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14th Apr 2024

Macedonia to join next wave of EU enlargement

  • Donald Tusk: 'This is a good week for ... the Western Balkans (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Two million people in Macedonia will be hoping to become EU citizens in 2025 after leaders gave a nod to start talks next year.

The same holds true for three million Albanian people, on top of earlier hopes given to the almost eight million people in Serbia and Montenegro, despite EU divisions on immigration and populist threats.

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  • Zoran Zaev (r): 'The great news has been confirmed' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"The European Council endorses the conclusions on enlargement and stabilisation and association process adopted by the Council on 26 June 2018," the 28 EU leaders plan to say in their summit conclusions, seen by EUobserver, on Thursday (28 June).

The phrase refers to a deal, earlier this week, by EU ministers to "set out the path towards opening accession talks with Macedonia and with Albania in June 2019".

But Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev, standing next to European Council leader Donald Tusk, in Brussels as the summit got under way, turned the anodyne words into a public pledge to bring his people into the EU by 2025.

"The great news has been confirmed - the Republic of Macedonia has received a date to start negotiations … the leaders of the EU have said yes," Zaev said.

"Negotiations on average last seven years … if Macedonia followed this timeline it would result in membership in 2025," he added.

"The next [EU] enlargement … will include Macedonia", he said. "Once and for all we will bring our country into the family of stable and developing countries [the EU]," Zaev said.

He was slightly premature in saying the news had been "confirmed", with the draft conclusions still to be adopted later the same evening.

But Tusk also said the decision was due to come without much further ado.

"In just a few hours, I expect the EU will endorse this," Tusk said. "This is a good week for your country and for the Western Balkans," he said.

EU membership would mean economic prosperity, democracy, and rule of law "once and for all" in an "irreversible process", Zaev added.

There is no guarantee the talks will yield a happy ending by 2025, but the Macedonian leader pledged to "complete our homework [reforms] and to rapidly enter the gates of the EU".

The green light for Albania and Macedonia comes amid a wider push to speed up Western Balkans enlargement.

The European Commission said in a strategy paper in January that Serbia and Montenegro should also be ready to join by 2025.

Populist threat

That good news for the Balkans comes amid bad news for the EU on migration - the main topic of Thursday's summit.

Leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel, have warned that unless the EU stops people crossing the bloc's external borders en masse and then fanning out to seek asylum wherever they want, then populist politicians could seize upon public fears to tear the union asunder.

Tusk nodded to those concerns with Zaev in saying "if you think that our proposals are too tough on migration … if they fail, then you might see some really tough proposals from tough guys [far-right firebrands]," he said.

He thanked Zaev for his "excellent cooperation" in keeping migrants out of the EU.

He also promoted the idea of "disembarkation platforms" - migrant holding pens, to be created, if EU leaders and their foreign partners agreed, in places such as Albania or north Africa.

Tusk and Zaev's optimism masked EU reluctance to move too quickly on enlargement in the difficult political context, however.

Skopje and Tirana had hoped to start the accession talks already this year.

They had also hoped that leaders would adopt a formal decision to open the accession talks, instead of the more fuzzy and informal language on "setting out a path" to starting those negotiations.

Denmark, France, and the Netherlands said no to all that at Tuesday's meeting of EU ministers in case it fed votes to populist parties in next year's European Parliament elections.

By contrast, when Croatia received its promise to start talks, back in 2005, the council said it "decides to open" accession talks on such and such a date, pending certain conditions.

The fuzzy wording means the formal decision to open talks will come in June next year, when leaders meet again.

That decision will fall after the EU elections and if a week is a long time in politics, as the saying goes, then a year is an eternity and the decision might well never come if the election result turns out to be a populist nightmare.

'Beautiful' deal

Macedonia's breakthrough comes after it clinched a solution to its 23-year old name dispute with Greece at a ceremony on the shores of a Greek lake, which Zaev called "one of the most beautiful regions in Europe".

It is to be called North Macedonia instead of Macedonia in order not to imply any territorial claim to the Greek region of Macedonia, under an accord signed earlier this month.

"The European Council strongly welcomes and supports the agreement reached between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece on the name issue. This … sets a strong example for others in the region to strengthen good neighbourly relations," the EU leaders also plan to say on Thursday.

But the solution must still be ratified by MPs and by referendums in both countries later this year, adding more potential hurdles to Zaev's 2025 target, amid street protests whipped up by nationalist parties in both Skopje and Athens that hope to tear up the accord.

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