Slovenia says EU must unblock N.Macedonia talks before special Balkan summit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union should let Albania and North Macedonia move ahead with membership talks by October before a special Balkans summit organised by Slovenia, which holds the EU presidency, its prime minister said on Tuesday.

Despite approval in March 2020 for both Balkan countries to proceed to formal talks, Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia's progress over a dispute about their shared language. Albania's status is linked to North Macedonia by the EU.

"We know that the European Union makes big steps forward once it focuses on something," Prime Minister Janez Jansa told a news conference. "If we move it up the agenda we will be able to take concrete steps forward. Albania and North Macedonia can move forward by the next summit in October if we all concentrate on that," he said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The EU-Western Balkans summit is set for Oct. 6 in Slovenia. EU ambassadors are due to have a first, closed-door discussion on Wednesday about it, with diplomats fearing a public relations disaster if Balkan negotiations remains frozen.

France, the Netherlands and Denmark are among EU countries wary of the "EU enlargement" process, after what many believe was the rushed accession of corruption-ridden Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. Albania is also seen as one of Europe's most corrupt countries that has failed to combat money laundering.

Chancellor Angela Merkel convened a gathering of Balkan and EU leaders in Berlin on Monday to try to breathe new life into enlargement. She said she saw the six Western Balkan states as future members of the EU for strategic reasons, a view echoed by Jansa.

"In Europe, there is a dilemma over whether enlargement is of strategic importance or not. My opinion is that it is," he said, adding that the EU had shrunk after Britain's departure. He also said the EU had stood idly by while Russia sought to stop Georgia and Ukraine from joining the 27-member bloc.

Bulgaria says North Macedonia cannot join the EU until it agrees that Macedonian is not a separate, official language but rather a dialect of Bulgarian. EU officials say the Balkan region has shared identities and languages, but no EU leaders have been able to break the deadlock.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich)