From: Alexandra Brzowzski, Alice Taylor
Albania and North Macedonia’s EU Accession: What Happens Now?

After Skopje resolved a long-running dispute with its neighbour Bulgaria, Albania and North Macedonia received the green light to start accession talks that could ultimately lead to EU membership, but what are the practical steps in the way forward?

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his North Macedonian counterpart Dimitar Kovacevski are expected in Brussels later on Tuesday to formally start the accession talks that are likely to take years.

EU accession negotiations with both countries had been pending since 2020 after Sofia had blocked any progress due to a dispute between the countries over linguistic and historical issues and the need to overcome hostility dating back from the Tito period.

North Macedonia was granted candidate status in 2005, but for many years was unable to start accession negotiations due to the opposition of Greece, until it changed its name, removed the Vergina Sun from its flag and gave up “Hellenisation” under the Prespa agreement of 2018.

After Prespa, France blocked the opening of accession negotiations with Skopje and Tirana until a new methodology for future enlargement was agreed at EU level.

The next obstacle was the Bulgarian veto from 2020, after Sofia had blocked any progress due to a dispute between the countries over historical issues.

The beginning of talks comes after North Macedonia and Bulgaria on Sunday (17 July) under pressure from Paris signed up to a French proposal that would make Macedonian an official language in the EU, change the country’s constitution to acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights, change textbooks with negative references to Bulgaria and introduce hate speech into the criminal code.

Bulgaria however continues to consider the Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian and on Monday filed at a meeting of EU ambassadors a memorandum reminding its position.

The dispute also stalled Albania’s bid to become a member, after the EU had grouped both countries together in their accession bid.

Albania is expected to start accession negotiations immediately, while North Macedonia will need first to change the constitution by including the Bulgarians among the other nation-building nations listed in it.

As Bulgarian outgoing Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska said, this could take “three months, or maybe two years”.

How do candidates become members?

Before the start of accession negotiations, the candidate country and the European Commission establish a so-called “pre-accession strategy“, which leads to both sides drawing up a negotiating framework.

Negotiations cannot begin until the mandate is unanimously agreed by EU member states.

In the process, the European Commission must be satisfied that the candidate country meets three conditions, the so-called Copenhagen criteria.

In order to start negotiations, the candidate country, however, only needs to meet the political criterion, while the other ones can be met during the negotiation phase.

Negotiations then take place between ministers and ambassadors of the EU governments and the candidate country in what is called an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC).

The first phase entails a rigorous screening process of the candidate country’s legislation to see how well aligned it is with EU law, or the acquis communautaire.

The acquis is divided into 35 negotiating chapters, grouped into six clusters, covering every legislative aspect, which all individually only can be closed with the unanimous blessing of all EU member states.

Negotiations begin with the opening of the chapters on so-called ‘fundamentals’, issues like the judiciary and fundamental rights, and this chapter is also the last to be signed off.

Negotiations of several chapters can take place simultaneously.

Once all chapters have been closed, the Commission recommends candidate countries for membership and the country signs the Accession Treaty that specifies a date for accession, making it become an ‘acceding country’.

The treaty needs to be ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament, which needs to approve the text with an absolute majority.

How long does accession take?

The pace of the negotiations depends on the speed of reform and alignment with EU laws in each country and their duration can vary.

The European Commission outlines the progress of candidate countries in yearly reports.

For North Macedonia and Albania, the EU executive said in last year’s evaluation both countries were ‘moderately prepared’ in most of the six clusters and have seen some progress.

Realistically, the closing of chapters can take several years, as has been the case for Serbia or Montenegro.

The quickest to negotiate accession were Austria, Finland and Sweden, in just under two years, whereas it took Croatia just under eight years from the start of negotiations to becoming a full member of the bloc.

What could be the stumbling blocks?

Bilateral issues or domestic unrest: Despite gaining the support of the majority of lawmakers, the French proposal had triggered wide protests in North Macedonia, with opponents arguing that altering the constitution may be a step too far.

Critics of the French proposal say that it opens the door to denying the national identity of the Macedonians.

Absorption rate: The Copenhagen Criteria also include a fourth consideration, namely that the EU must have the capacity to absorb a new member state.

Over the past years, there has been a certain degree of reluctance for enlargement within the EU. But the strategic importance of the Western Balkans to the EU has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with fears over Moscow’s influence in the region.

Czechia, now holding the six-month rotating EU Council Presidency, will have to balance between countries pushing for speedy accession of Ukraine to the EU and countries who have been waiting for many years, like those in the Western Balkans, on the other.

In October 2022, the Czech Presidency will organise an informal summit in Prague. The event will be attended by the member states and other European countries as well, “from Iceland to Ukraine”.