EU moves to start membership talks with Albania, North Macedonia

By Gabriela Baczynska

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union can start membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, according to a draft decision by the bloc's 27 member states seen by Reuters on Monday and due to be finalised this week.

If approved as expected, the agreement would end two years of delays and signal new momentum for all six Western Balkan countries - Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and North Macedonia - seeking to join the EU.

North Macedonia and Albania had seen their hopes dashed last year as France and the Netherlands sounded scepticism over their track records on democracy and fighting corruption, fearful of allowing new members in at a time when the EU's cohesion was already damaged by Britain's departure from the bloc.

But Paris and The Hague eased their objections last month and the plans to allow talks to start have gained momentum despite the coronavirus crisis, with Brussels eager to show its determination to bring the Balkans into the EU fold.

"I don't think what is happening (with coronavirus) is going to alter the decision of the member states," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters on Friday.

Borrell said he also telephoned Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to reassure him of the EU's support after Vucic praised China for its help in fighting coronavirus in Serbia and questioned European solidarity.

Following a video conference of EU foreign ministers on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged European governments to show support for the Balkans.

"We need also to look at our neighbours, such as in the Western Balkans, countries that are on the verge of starting accession talks. There we must strengthen weaker health systems ... Transmission of the virus does not stop at the borders," he told reporters by video conference.


"TESTING TIME"

Greece was still not on board before the weekend with the decision, which requires unanimity of all EU members. But diplomatic sources said Athens has given its approval after the latest draft included stronger language on protecting Greek and other national minorities in Albania.

The decision, however, does not include dates for the actual start of talks. Diplomats expect it later this year for North Macedonia, but not for Albania, widely seen as a more problematic candidacy. For both, the process would take years.

If no country objects, the decision is expected to be formally adopted by the 27 EU members' Europe ministers at mid-week - in writing this time as face-to-face meetings have been suspended due to coronavirus risks - the sources added.

"It's a testing time for Europe. The EU needs to show that it maintains its capacity to act amidst the coronavirus crisis. That's also why we were able to find an agreement on enlargement now. It proves that the EU is still working and delivering," a senior EU diplomat told Reuters on Monday.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who blocked the opening of talks with Skopje and Tirana in October, said in February he was willing to allow them to begin membership talks if the European Commission gave them a positive review and changed the way it admits new countries.

Brussels duly did, with a reform of the enlargement process presented in February, which France welcomed.

EU governments, not just the EU Commission, now have more say over the process, ensuring hopefuls meet targets in economic, judicial and other reforms, and can reset the process if Balkan governments do not step up.

Unless postponed by the coronavirus outbreak, EU and Balkan leaders are due to hold a summit in Zagreb in late May in a show of support for the six countries of the region.


(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Mark Heinrich, Larry King)