"A historic moment": the European Union on Tuesday opened accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, two countries blocked in the antechamber of the Union for eight and seventeen years, but the process still looks long and difficult before integration.
They have joined two other Western Balkan countries, Serbia and Montenegro, in this course of EU accession negotiations and will be called upon to form part of the European political community, a proposed framework pending further enlargement.
"This is a historic moment," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a press conference in Brussels with the Albanian and North Macedonian leaders.
"This is what your citizens have been waiting for so long, what they have worked so hard for, and this is what they deserve," she added. North Macedonia has been a candidate since 2005 and Albania since 2014.
"This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning," said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, paraphrasing former British leader Winston Churchill to recall the many difficulties still to be overcome by the two candidate countries.
The 27 member countries of the European Union gave their agreement on Monday to the opening of negotiations the day after the signing of a protocol between Skopje and Sofia removing the last obstacles.
Skopje had already ended a dispute with Greece in 2018 by agreeing to change its name, thus opening the door to NATO membership. But that of the EU remained closed to it, due to a veto by Bulgaria against the backdrop of ancient historical and cultural quarrels.
The Bulgarian position also prevented the launch of negotiations with Albania, whose candidacy is linked to that of Skopje by the EU.
"An absurd situation", denounced Edi Rama. The Albanian leader praised the "work carried out by France and President Emmanuel Macron" during the semester of the presidency of the Council of the EU to formulate a compromise acceptable to Skopje and Sofia.
This is a "new start" for the Western Balkan region and "it will be synonymous with prosperity and progress", assured Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski in a long speech delivered in Macedonian, then in English.
"We are delighted to have helped and contributed to this", commented the French Secretary of State in charge of Europe, Laurence Boone. “With the war (in Ukraine) it is very important that we manage to continue to bring our European family together,” she added.
His German counterpart Anna Lührmann indicated that "the next steps will open as soon as the constitutional changes are adopted" in North Macedonia.
As part of the compromise found, Skopje has notably undertaken to modify its Constitution, an ambition which can however prove to be thorny.
The agreement with Bulgaria will allow, among other things, Macedonian to become one of the official languages of the EU.
Negotiations will then be long to integrate the Union and membership will have to be ratified by the 27 members of the EU, sometimes with the organization of a referendum.
Applicants must assume the obligations of membership and have a functioning market economy capable of coping with market forces and competitive pressure within the Union.
Two other Western Balkan countries have been negotiating their membership with the EU: Serbia since 2014 and Montenegro since 2012.
A third candidate, Turkey, has been negotiating since 1999, but talks have been "stalled" since 2019 due to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's autocratic drift and diplomatic disputes with Greece and other member states.
The process was reformed in 2019. The method is more incentive, but it provides for "reversibility" with the "put to sleep" or even the suspension of negotiations in the event of a problem with the candidate.
The EU has proposed creating a "European Political Community" to welcome candidate countries and neighboring countries to discuss common issues. The first meeting will be held on October 6 and 7 in Prague, a diplomatic source said.
19/07/2022 15:28:18 - Bruxelles (AFP) - © 2022 AFP