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Albania, North Macedonia ready for EU membership talks - Commission

FILE PHOTO: European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Albania and North Macedonia have done enough to merit starting negotiations to join the European Union, the EU’s executive said on Monday, opening the way for France to lift its freeze on the aspirations of the two Balkan states.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who blocked the opening of talks with Skopje and Tirana in October, said last month he was willing to allow them to begin membership talks if the European Commission gave them a positive review in March.

On releasing progress reports on Monday, Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said that the two countries had reformed their economies, judicial systems and other areas of state to prepare for meeting EU standards.

“The Commission stands firmly by its recommendations to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia,” Varhelyi said in a statement. “I hope that the member states will take a positive decision in the coming weeks.”

EU member governments are set to decide later this month. Approval would lead to a summit of EU leaders and all six western Balkan candidate countries - Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and North Macedonia - in Zagreb in May.

It may go some way to assuaging concerns in the EU about growing Chinese and Russian influence in the six states and a sense that the bloc is failing to transform the countries scarred by the 1990s Balkan wars into market economies.

Macron had refused to approve the start of so-called accession negotiations at a summit in October, saying the process of admitting new members needed to change.

The Commission in February suggested reforms to the accession process along the lines of a French proposal made in November, giving EU governments more say and making it easier to stop or reset negotiations and freeze funds.

Denmark and the Netherlands, who supported Macron, are expected to drop their resistance as well, EU diplomats said.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich