The EU is moving closer to opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, at least in part because of a determination to show that the bloc can still function despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The bloc’s foreign and Europe ministers will on Tuesday discuss a proposal, seen by POLITICO, on opening talks with the two Balkan countries and are expected to give their backing. The talks will be held by videoconference. As the EU decision-making process has been affected by coronavirus, diplomats say one element behind the decision is a push to show that it is still able to operate. The EU “demonstrated it remains operational,” said a Croatian official.
On three previous occasions, decisions on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, as recommended by the European Commission, have been put on hold because of objections from some member countries — notably France, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Supporters of the two candidate countries beginning talks argue that another negative decision would pave the way for Russia and Turkey to increase their influence in the Balkans. But, highlighting the difficulty of enlargement for the EU, the current draft is a watered down version of a text ambassadors had initially put on the table.
“In light of the progress achieved on reforms and the fulfilment of the conditions set unanimously by the Council in June 2018, the Council, subject to endorsement by the European Council members, decides to open accession negotiations with the Republic of Albania,” a draft of the proposal says. It uses the same language in the section on North Macedonia.
Two diplomats said that one of the outstanding issues was to include a line requested by Greece on “the adoption of the law on the population census.”
The draft sets out a series of conditions for Albania, reflecting the concerns of some countries that Tirana is further behind in the process. The enlargement process envisages that the Commission will present a framework for negotiations with the two countries and then talks can take place in what is known as an “intergovernmental conference.”
The negotiating framework “has to reflect that Albania has successfully addressed … five key priorities,” including the initiation of judicial procedures against judges and prosecutors accused of criminal conduct during the vetting process, initiation of proceedings against those accused of vote buying, and “a sound track record regarding [the] fight against corruption and organised crime at all levels.”
And “prior to the first intergovernmental conference,” Albania should take some other measures, including the adoption of electoral reforms “ensuring transparent financing of political parties and electoral campaigns, ensure the continued implementation of the judicial reform, including ensuring the functioning of the Constitutional Court and the High Court.”
Two diplomats said that one of the outstanding issues was to include a line requested by Greece on “the adoption of the law on the population census” and “the advancement of the process of registration of properties” to avoid discrimination against the country’s Greek minority.
In an annex to the draft document, the Commission said that “Albania has already achieved significant progress” on the issues flagged by the Council, although it added that it “will continue to monitor the progress and track record on all these areas.”
That line was included mainly to “appease the Dutch and the Danes,” said a diplomat who took part in the talks.