A girl stands with her bicycle near the offices of the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of North Macedonia, covered with logos reading "EU for You" in different languages, in Skopje, North Macedonia March 24, 2020. (Photo: Agencies)
Two Balkan nations with long-held aspirations to become European Union members finally learned this week the bloc is ready to negotiate their future participation.
Albania and North Macedonia will now start talks that could take several years on the details of their membership.
Their participation in such talks had looked assured a year ago but was foiled when the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, vetoed negotiations until the membership process was reformed.
The European Commission subsequently overhauled the process, in part because it feared further delay might add to instability in the Balkan region.
The delay last year led to North Macedonia's leader resigning and the nation participating in a sudden general election.
North Macedonia's proposed membership had also been stalled in the more distant past by Greece, which objected to the former Yugoslavian state using the name "Macedonia" because it was shared by an integral and ancient part of Greece. Macedonia subsequently changed its name to North Macedonia to appease Athens.
"We reached a political decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia," the Associated Press news agency quoted Andreja Metelko Zgombic, Croatia's European affairs minister, as saying after she chaired a video meeting of EU ministers on Tuesday.
She said the decision, which EU leaders are set to formerly accept on Thursday, was "good news, historic news, for those two countries".
Edi Rama, Albania's prime minister, said the decision was "beautiful news" and pledged to do whatever is necessary "until we enter and sit in the EU's living room".
But he cautioned: "There is a long path and the road is still upward and the work ahead of us is big."
North Macedonia, which, like Albania, was first named a candidate country for future EU membership in 2005, also welcomed the news.
Oliver Spasovski, the nation's caretaker prime minister, said at a news conference in the nation's capital that citizens should be proud.
"At a very difficult moment for our country, for Europe, and for the whole world, today we have received beautiful and long-awaited news from Brussels," he said, in reference to the ongoing battle against the novel coronavirus.
The nations will now begin the lengthy process of aligning themselves with EU rules in such areas as agriculture, energy, finance, law, and transportation; a process that could take several years as in the case of Turkey, which started membership negotiations with the EU back in 2013.
But, despite the long road ahead, the Independent newspaper quoted Oliver Varhelyi, the EU's enlargement commissioner, as saying the move "sends a loud and clear message to Western Balkans: your future is in EU".