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Workers set up a sign with the new name at the border between Macedonia and Greece, near Gevgelija, on February 13, 2019. ...

EU greenlights membership talks for Albania and N. Macedonia

BRUSSELS (AP) — European affairs ministers agreed Tuesday to allow Albania and North Macedonia to begin European Union membership talks, paving the way for the bloc’s leaders to sign off on the move that could end years of setbacks and disappointment for the two Balkan nations.

“We reached a political decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia,” Croatia’s European Affairs minister, Andreja Metelko Zgombic, said after chairing a meeting of the ministers held by video conference.

She described the decision as “good news, historic news, for those two countries” and said EU leaders were likely to rubber stamp it on Thursday.

No date was announced for the start of the membership negotiations, which can take several years.

Albania and North Macedonia were meant to begin talks last year on joining the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the action and said he would continue to do so until the process for allowing countries into the 27-nation bloc had been reformed.

Macron did so despite warnings that further delays to the countries’ membership quests could undermine stability in the volatile Balkans region. North Macedonia’s leader reacted by stepping down and calling a snap parliamentary election. The European Commission later revised the accession process for North Macedonia and Albania to respond to French and Dutch objections.

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Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the decision to launch membership negotiations as “beautiful news, though delayed not because of us.”

Rama pledged they would continue to fulfil the required steps “until we enter and sit in the EU’s living room.”

“There is a long path and the road is still upward and the work ahead of us is big,” he said.

“There will be a celebration day only when we liberate ourselves from this invisible enemy,” Rama said in reference to the coronavirus epidemic.

North Macedonia, previously known as Macedonia, has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but a long-running dispute with Greece over the country’s name stood in the way of accession negotiations. The two neighbors struck a deal for Macedonia to rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Greece dropping its objections to the country joining the EU.

North Macedonia’s caretaker prime minister, Oliver Spasovski, told his fellow citizens that “today we can 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,” Spasovski told a news conference in Skopje, the capital. “This success is the end of our 15 years of waiting for EU candidate status. Our road is open and the only direction on that road is straight ahead.”

Countries must negotiate 35 so-called chapters, or policy areas, to join the EU. The chapters include financial, agriculture, transport, energy, social and justice policy.

The process can be drawn out. For example, Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, started its negotiations at the same time as Turkey, which is unlikely to become a member anytime soon.

Associated Press writers Llazar Semini and Konstantin Testorides contributed to this report.

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