Western Balkan candidates hold their breath ahead of crucial EU decision

On October 15, the EU’s General Affairs Council is due to make a long-awaited decision on whether to open accession negotiations with two candidate countries: Albania and North Macedonia.

If the two small Western Balkan states have been disappointed time and again by EU leaders’ repeated postponement of talks, this time they are hoping for a breakthrough in progress towards membership.

Four outgoing and incoming EU presidents have taken the unusual step of personally urging European governments to open negotiations.

“The European Union stands before a strategic choice. Whether the EU decides now to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania is a test of the Union’s ability to deliver on its promises and look to the future,” states an open letter from European Parliament President David Sassoli, retiring Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk, and Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen.

“North Macedonia and Albania did what we asked them to do,” declare the leaders, acknowledging however that “there will be a lot of hard work on reforms along the way.”

“We believe that now is the time to open accession talks with both countries,” they conclude.


Berat in Albania


The move was welcomed by Albania’s acting Foreign Minister Gent Cakaj. “A very rightful and encouraging message for a positive decision of the EU Council,” he tweeted, thanking the signatories for their “leadership and strategic wisdom”.

Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn also welcomed the leaders’ “strong stance for opening accession negotiations with both countries in October”, saying that recognising efforts made by the candidates was key to the EU’s credibility. “North Macedonia and Albania have delivered – now it’s high time that Member States deliver too!”

North Macedonia has had candidate status since 2005, but until 2018 was blocked by the lengthy ‘name dispute’ with its Greek neighbour. Albania became a candidate in June 2014, having applied for EU membership in 2009. Since 2018, the Commission has twice recommended opening talks, but each time the Council put a decision on hold.

Countries like France and the Netherlands have been particularly reluctant to take steps towards further EU enlargement. But in a hopeful sign for the two candidates, the German Bundestag last month voted to launch negotiations.

In a subsequent draft proposal for the upcoming General Affairs Council, the Finnish EU Presidency unconditionally recommended opening accession talks. In the case of Albania, it highlighted progress in achieving reforms. However, that is not the end of the story. The draft is expected to undergo changes, for example, because Germany has added new conditions to be met in advance of the 1st intergovernmental conference – due to be held later this year – and to be included in the negotiating framework. They call on Albania to demonstrate a track record in fighting corruption and organised crime, including the prosecution of high-ranking politician and officials, and reform of the public administration.


Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama – Picture: Kate Holman


Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has in the past expressed frustration at what some see as an ideological opposition to the country’s European future. Earlier this year the Dutch Parliament declared opposition specifically to Albania’s membership. Yet public support for the EU among Albanians remains strong. An IPSOS poll published this year found that more than 92% of those questioned were in favour of EU membership, although 58% believed “they don’t like us”.

“The joint letter of the four presidents has been very much welcomed and appreciated,” said Albania’s EU Ambassador Suela Janina. “As rightly emphasised in the letter it is the time to make a strategic choice, which would be beneficial for our countries, the region of the Western Balkans and Europe as a whole.”