EU boost adds impetus to Macedonia's bid for deal with Greece
France's Macron demands EU reform before Balkan expansion
Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev (right) accepts the European Commission report from EU commissioner Johannes Hahn, on Wednesday. Photograph: Nake Batev/EPA
A top EU official has urged Macedonia to deepen reforms and end a bitter 27-year-old dispute with Greece, after the European Commission backed the launch of membership talks with the ex-Yugoslav republic and neighbouring Albania.
The EU is trying to reinvigorate its plans for expansion in the Balkans, in part to counter rising Russian and Chinese influence in the strategic region, despite doubts among many member states and calls to introduce new rules for the bloc.
“Your country has come a long way despite difficult circumstances, has managed to overcome a deep political crisis and is now firmly back on the EU path,” EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in Skopje on Wednesday.
“Reforms are being carried out in a more open, transparent and inclusive manner... but there is no room for complacency. The momentum of reforms needs to continue, especially in important areas like improving the independence of the judiciary.”
Since taking power last May after two years of political deadlock, a Social Democrat-led government has tried to improve Macedonia’s ties with neighbouring Bulgaria and Greece, and relations with Athens are crucial to its EU bid.
Athens has refused to back Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU and Nato until it changes the name that it shares with a region of northern Greece, and which allegedly implies a territorial claim to the area.
The governments of both countries say they are now close to a deal, however, and Macedonia will need Greece and all other member states to approve the start of accession talks when EU leaders meet in June.
“It’s not easy to find a deal...but we fully support this process and hope a mutually acceptable solution can be found very soon,” Mr Hahn said alongside Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev.
Mr Zaev said his government had “changed stagnation and corrupted policies for reforms and friendships that are moving forward.”
In Albania, meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hailed a “historic moment” for the country and the bloc, but said that “maintaining and deepening the reforms that you have undertaken” was now crucial.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament on Tuesday that if the EU failed to offer membership to Balkan states “we will see war returning to that area as we saw in the 1990s”.
“I don’t want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, but I don’t want a Europe that, working with difficulty at 28 and tomorrow at 27, decided that it could continue to run at 30 or 32 tomorrow with the same rules.”