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 the media 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.
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.
If no country objects, the decision is expected to be formally adopted by the 27 EU members’ Europe ministers at mid-week, 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.
EU and Balkan leaders are due to hold a summit in Zagreb in May in a show of support for the six countries of the region.