BRUSSELS (AP) — European affairs ministers agreed Tuesday to allow Albania and North Macedonia to begin European Union membership talks, paving the way for the bloc’s leaders to sign off on the move that could end years of setbacks and disappointment for the two Balkan nations..
“We reached a political decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia," Croatia's European Affairs minister, Andreja Metelko Zgombic, said after chairing a meeting of the ministers held by video conference.
She described the decision as "good news, historic news, for those two countries" and said EU leaders were likely to rubber stamp it on Thursday.
No date was announced for the start of the membership negotiations, which can take several years.
Albania and North Macedonia were meant to begin talks last year on joining the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the action and said he would continue to do so until the process for allowing countries into the 27-nation bloc had been reformed.
Macron did so despite warnings that further delays to the countries' membership quests could undermine stability in the volatile Balkans region. North Macedonia’s leader reacted by stepping down and calling a snap parliamentary election. The European Commission later revised the accession process for North Macedonia and Albania to respond to French and Dutch objections.
North Macedonia, previously known as Macedonia, has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but a long-running dispute with Greece over the country's name stood in the way of accession negotiations. The two neighbors struck a deal for Macedonia to rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Greece dropping its objections to the country joining the EU.
Countries must negotiate 35 so-called chapters, or policy areas, to join the EU. The chapters include financial, agriculture, transport, energy, social and justice policy.
The process can be drawn out. For example, Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, started its negotiations at the same time as Turkey, which is unlikely to become a member anytime soon.