The EU on Tuesday officially launched accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
After Skopje’s parliament voted Saturday to compromise on a long-standing dispute with neighboring Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania received the bloc’s green light to formally open accession talks — though the Western Balkans countries still face a long road to full membership.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the opening of talks.
“You’ve made all these changes not because they were necessary on your path towards the European Union, but above all because they are good for your countries and they are already delivering a better quality of life for your people,” she said at a press conference, listing the numerous reforms on rule of law, freedom of press and corruption that both countries have made just to start talks.
The Commission will now start its screening process this week, with Albanian and North Macedonian representatives.
“It is a great satisfaction that after 17 years, today, we are finally starting the negotiations […] steady but surely, we are joining the large European family,” said Dimitar Kovačevski, prime minister of North Macedonia.
Some obstacles are remaining. Under the deal that North Macedonia’s parliament voted to pass on Saturday — which is a hard sell in the country and has sparked protests — North Macedonia must commit to changing its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority in the country and introduce other new measures to protect minority rights and banish hate speech on the basis of Bulgarian demands.
Constitutional changes in North Macedonia require a two-thirds majority in parliament. But opposition lawmakers meanwhile have repeatedly said they won’t back the changes.
Bulgaria’s veto over North Macedonia’s accession had wider ramifications, as it also stalled Albania’s accession because the EU is treating both countries as part of a package.
Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, said Tuesday that the Albanian people never “gave up the dream to pursue the European path,” despite “three very, very difficult years” following accession hurdles, the pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine.