SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) – Foreign ministers of Austria, Czech Republic and Slovenia on Saturday expressed unanimous support for North Macedonia and Albania to start accession negotiations with the European Union, arguing that bilateral issues should not block the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans.
Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg, Czech Jakub Kulhanek and Slovenian Anze Logar have arrived in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, to offer their support for the EU membership negotiations scheduled for June. The three plan to visit Albania, which also wants to join the EU, on Sunday.
Bulgaria refused last year to approve the EU’s membership negotiating framework for North Macedonia, effectively blocking the official start of membership negotiations with its smaller neighbor in the Balkans.
Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to officially recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots and to eradicate allegedly anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. The government in Skopje says that the Macedonian identity and language are not open to discussion.
Bulgaria again ruled out a possible reversal of its veto on Friday following a meeting with EU officials.
Kulhanek, from the Czech Republic, said it was “not fair” for an EU member country to make the enlargement process conditional on a bilateral dispute.
“This is a crucial time, and we cannot allow (the process) to be blocked by such demands,” he said.
North Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004 and received a positive assessment from the European Commission a year later. EU leaders have agreed to formal membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje settled a nearly three-decade dispute with neighboring Greece over the country’s name, which renamed it North Macedonia.
The countries of the Western Balkans are at different stages of the EU membership negotiations. Serbia and Montenegro have already started negotiating certain chapters of their accession agreements. Kosovo and Bosnia have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step towards membership.
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