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EU opens membership talks with two more Balkan countries

North Macedonia and Albania have been waiting years to begin the process.

THE EU LAUNCHED membership negotiations today with Albania and North Macedonia, a long-delayed step towards the countries joining the bloc.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warmly congratulated prime ministers Edi Rama of Albania and Dimitar Kovacevski of North Macedonia.

“This is what your citizens have been waiting for for so long and have been working for so hard, and this is what they deserve,” she said.

For North Macedonia, the path to this point has involved years of setbacks, letdowns, and the change of its name.

Over the weekend, the country’s government announced it had reached a compromise with Bulgaria in a long-running dispute that had served as a roadblock to the onset of talks for EU membership.

But the 17-year journey has sapped many in the country of any enthusiasm for joining the bloc, according to North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski.

The president was among a chorus of political leaders who backed a recent French-mediated deal that paved the way for ending the deadlock with Bulgaria over historic grievances, which calls for constitutional changes to protect Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia among other measures.

The agreement was the latest in a long line of bureaucratic hurdles and political compromises for North Macedonia since it became a formal candidate to join the EU in 2005.

“From the standpoint of the procedure and the way that many in Europe — especially Bulgaria in the past two years — are treating us, it’s a clear humiliation,” Pendarovski told AFP during a recent interview in the capital Skopje.

Since declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, North Macedonia has faced a litany of obstacles from its Balkan neighbours over historical grievances.

Despite the hurdles, the country pressed on in its fight for international acceptance, culminating with the official change of its name in 2018 to settle a decades-long dispute with Greece that cleared the path to NATO membership.

But the door to the EU remained firmly closed, thanks to a brief delay initiated first by France followed by an outright veto from Bulgaria over a raft of disputes involving history and language.

The dispute also stalled Albania’s bid to become a member of the 27-nation bloc, due to a long-held policy that the ambitions of both countries to join the EU be treated together.

North Macedonia was designated as a candidate for EU membership nearly 20 years ago. It already worked through big differences with Greece in order to join NATO in March 2020.

Albania was awarded candidate status by the EU in 2014.

The strategic importance of the Western Balkans to the EU has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, with fears over Moscow’s influence in the region.

© AFP 2022

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