Jul 19, 2022 - World

Albania, North Macedonia begin EU accession talks

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (R) and North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski (L) hold a joint press conference
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (R) and North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski (L) at a press conference at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium on July 19. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

North Macedonia and Albania on Tuesday officially began membership negotiations to join the European Union.

Why it matters: The ongoing war in Ukraine has brought fresh attention to Russia's sphere of influence in eastern Europe and the Balkans.

  • Advocates of Western Balkan integration into the EU have long argued that a lack of meaningful western engagement in the region would further open it up to influence from actors such as Russia and China.

Driving the news: The opening of membership talks came days after North Macedonia's parliament approved a French-brokered deal to resolve a longstanding dispute with EU-member Bulgaria that has been blocking North Macedonia's accession.

  • The agreement's approval was a green light for Albania as well since the two countries have been treated as a package deal by the EU.
  • Although talks between the countries and the EU have now begun, actual membership is still likely years away.

The big picture: Under the agreement, North Macedonia has agreed to change its constitution to formally recognize a Bulgarian minority, banish hate speech against Bulgaria and recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, per AP.

  • Actually changing the constitution could prove to be a political hurdle as it will require a two-thirds majority in parliament, Politico reported.
  • The agreement's unveiling was met with days of protests in North Macedonia, with critics denouncing it as undermining the country's national identity.
  • Bulgaria's parliament voted to lift its veto last month shortly after Bulgaria's pro-Western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's ruling coalition was toppled in a no-confidence vote partially as a result of his willingness to accept the deal, the Guardian reported.

What they're saying: "The United States welcomes the important steps the European Union is taking to advance the integration of the Western Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic community by opening EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia," President Biden said in a statement.

  • "In a moment when Russia has shattered peace in Europe, it is more important than ever to support the aspiration for a Europe whole, free, and at peace. A democratic, secure, and prosperous Western Balkans remains essential to this vision," Biden added.
  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised the leaders of North Macedonia and Albania for their "patience, vision and leadership" in a tweet on Tuesday. "We will all stand to gain, when one day we welcome Albania and North Macedonia in the EU."

Context: North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. Its membership talks were initially blocked by Greece, a dispute that was resolved in 2018.

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