EU hopeful Albania, N. Macedonia membership talks in sight

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — After years of setbacks and disappointment, two Balkan countries' hopes for launching European Union membership talks could be realized in coming weeks, according to the prime minister of Croatia, which took over the EU's rotating presidency on Jan. 1.

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Albania and North Macedonia were meant to start formal accession talks with the EU last year. French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the undertaking in October and said he would continue to do so until the process for admitting countries to the 28-nation bloc was reformed.

Macron opposed opening the talks despite warnings that further delays to North Macedonia and Albania's membership quests could undermine stability in the volatile Balkans region. In response to the October delay, North Macedonia’s leader stepped down and called snap parliamentary elections, which are set for April 12.

But Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and senior Croatian officials appear confident that they can meet Macron’s demands and possibly finalize by late March a date for Albania and North Macedonia to start accession negotiations, which can take several years.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, had recommended starting the process last year.

“France had certain reservations that were more of a conceptual nature,” Plenkovic told reporters in Zagreb on Thursday. “Is the methodology for the accession process good or not?”

He said the EU commission is working on a paper containing suggestions for ways to improve the “methodology” for joining the EU, plus a few concrete steps that the countries might quickly be able to take. No details were provided.

Countries must negotiate 35 so-called chapters, or policy areas, to join the EU, including 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 but Ankara is still struggling to become a member and that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Speaking to reporters with Plenkovic, European Council President Charles Michel said steps should be taken to “modernize the enlargement process." He noted the principle of “reversibility,” which essentially means that the countries could be obliged to re-open chapters they’ve already completed.

However, this is already the case, as the negotiations are conducted on a “nothing is closed unless all is closed” basis.

Whatever compromise is found, Macron said this week that he wants an EU-Balkans summit scheduled for May to be “a moment of unity” for Europe and “a success.” Croatian officials read his remarks as a sign that a solution will be found, possibly by the time EU leaders meet in Brussels in March.

Ironically, Albania and North Macedonia are struggling to join the EU as Britain struggles to become the first country to leave. The bloc's expansion over the years has complicated decision-making in the world's biggest trade bloc, and a kind of enlargement fatigue set in after 10 countries joined in 2004.

But EU membership has been a powerful driving force for democratic, political and economic reform in the Balkans, and supporters of working with Albania and North Macedonia fear any more delays by the EU could play into the hands of anti-European political forces in North Macedonia's April elections.

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AP Writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.