After Brexit and Amid Pandemic, EU Okays Formal Membership Talks for Two Balkans Candidates

By James Carstensen | March 25, 2020 | 8:19pm EDT
(Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – In bid to bolster European unity at a time of uncertainty and crisis, a key European Union body on Wednesday approved the opening of formal membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, five months after some powerful member-states blocked the move.

“These are very challenging times and I think that Europe now shows that when it decides something it really means it,” said Oliver Varhelyi, the E.U. Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, as the general affairs council, made up of representatives of each state, announced its decision.

“It means that we are ready to make strategic decisions even in difficult circumstances,” he added, with apparent reference to the COVID-19 pandemic which has hit E.U. member states especially hard.

Varhelyi added on Twitter later that the decision “sends a loud and clear message to [the] Western Balkans: your future is in E.U.”

Entering into formal E.U. membership negotiations is an important step for a country that has formerly been identified as an official candidate for membership.

Last October, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands rejected the step for the two Balkan countries, a stance which the then-E.U. chief Jean-Claude Juncker called a “grave, historic error.”

France said then that the E.U. needed first to adopt an accession process that could be “reversed” should an aspiring member fall short or backslide in areas seen as fundamental E.U. values, in the areas of economic policy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Last month the E.U.’s executive Commission formally proposed changes to the accession methodology, incorporating those concerns.

A European Commission report in early March outlined progress on key issues such as law reform against corruption and organized crime in Albania, and improving judicial independence and rule of law in North Macedonia. That appeared to be the final step needed for France and other objectors to withdraw their opposition.

“Member-states endorsed the revised methodology proposed by the Commission in February to unblock the situation and make the enlargement process more credible, with a stronger political steer, more dynamic and more predictable,” an E.U. official explained from Brussels.

Dr. Elise Rainer, assistant professor of international relations at the American Military University’s School of Security and Global Studies, said that “with Brexit and the state of the European Union in question, Macron and other world leaders [are working] to not only sustain, but strengthen, the E.U.”

“While North Macedonia and Albania are small countries, by formally opening E.U. accession talks, Macron and other E.U. leaders send a signal that the E.U. remains an important political and economic union,” she said.

Rainer said the E.U.’s move may also be intended to send a signal to Turkey, which has been in membership negotiation talks with the E.U. since 2005.

“For a host of reasons, including the erosion of democratic institutions in Turkey, talks between the E.U. and Turkey have stalled,” she said. The difficulty has now been compounded by a recent Turkish decision to renege on a 2016 agreement with the E.U., and to allow thousands of refugees to pass through its borders and into the union.

Despite the progress for North Macedonia and Albania, ultimate membership is not guaranteed.

The two countries will have to continue making significant progress on reforms, including reforming laws to align with E.U. policy and values. They must then pass a final vote, and be approved by all 27 current member-states.

European People’s Party deputy chair Andrey Kovatchev congratulated the countries but warned that success will depend on reform.

“Future progress in the accession talks fully depends on the reforms taken up by Skopje and Tirana, and their willingness to overcome obstacles in their reform process,” he said.

The EPP’s spokesman for foreign affairs, Michael Gahler, gave a similarly cautious message.

“Countries who work harder and achieve E.U. standards quicker should see their efforts rewarded,” Gahler said, but added that in cases where progress is insufficient, “negotiations should be halted.”

Of the independent countries that once made up Yugoslavia, only Slovenia and Croatia are members of the E.U., having joined in 2004 and 2013 respectively.  Montenegro and Serbia are in the midst of formal membership negotiations, and Bosnia and Kosovo are regarded as “potential candidate” countries  


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