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Commission urges EU member talks for Skopje, Tirana 'now'

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Brussels (AFP)

The European Commission on Wednesday urged the EU to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia immediately, saying they had delivered on reforms demanded by Brussels.

The two Balkan states aspire to join the European Union but their accession bids have stalled as public opinion and politicians in the bloc -- especially France and the Netherlands -- have grown cold at the prospect of bringing in new members.

Tirana in particular is growing impatient, with Prime Minister Edi Rama warning in an AFP interview last month that the delay was hurting the Balkans and could reignite simmering tensions.

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini pressed the 28 member states not to wait any longer, saying there was a risk of sowing "disillusion".

Last year member states agreed to start accession talks for both countries but only in June this year, and only if they met certain conditions, particularly improvements in the fight against crime and corruption.

Reporting on the progress made, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said Albania and North Macedonia had taken major steps, and the European Council -- the member states -- must respond.

"Both countries have delivered on reforms, in particular in areas set by the council unanimously in June 2018. On that basis the commission recommends the council opens accession negotiations now with both Albania and North Macedonia," he told the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament.

"To remain credible the EU must stick to its commitments and respond clearly and positively when countries fulfil theirs."

Rama was quick to welcome the commission's recommendation, saying it showed Albania had "successfully completed its homework".

- Danger of disillusion -

The decision on whether to launch formal talks rests with the member states, though any timetable is unclear. They may discuss it at a summit in Brussels next month or wait until a meeting of European affairs ministers in July.

North Macedonia expects a reward after a difficult diplomatic compromise that involved changing its name to settle a dispute with Greece -- a deal that also opened the way for Skopje to join NATO.

"Not rewarding historic achievements and substantial reforms would undermine stability and discourage seriously further reforms and would introduce an element of disillusion, especially among the young population that is so supportive of the European Union prospect," Mogherini warned.

North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev echoed her words.

"They gave us homework and told us that if we deliver in the upcoming period we are going to be awarded. Our time in the waiting room was not wasted but used to work on reforms so that we can prepare for the negotiations for membership in EU," he said.

"Now it is their turn, EU members and institutions. Giving the recommendation is the only guarantee for the domestic stability and maintaining the reform process for positive impact in North Macedonia and the region," Zaev told reporters.

Montenegro and Serbia are frontrunners to join the EU from the Balkans, having already started the formal membership process, but Hahn said they needed to "urgently" step up their efforts to improve the rule of law if they wanted to progress.

But some EU states point to corruption and rule of law issues in Bulgaria and Romania, which were admitted in 2007, as a warning against being too hasty in letting in new members.

France, one of the bloc's two main powerhouses, has been particularly vocal in its reluctance, with President Emmanuel Macron insisting there must be "a deepening and improvement" of the existing union before any more enlargement.

In a nod to these concerns, Hahn stressed that opening talks "doesn't mean we conclude tomorrow or the day after", noting that most recent new member Croatia took eight years to complete the process.

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