SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — The foreign ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia voiced unanimous support Saturday for North Macedonia and Albania to start membership talks with European Union, arguing that bilateral issues should not block the EU’s enlargement into the Western Balkans.
Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg, the Czech Republic’s Jakub Kulhanek and Slovenia’s Anze Logar arrived in North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, to offer their backing for EU accession talks 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 negotiation framework for North Macedonia, effectively blocking the official start of membership talks with its smaller Balkan neighbor.
Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots and to stamp out allegedly anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. The government in Skopje says the Macedonian identity and language are not open to discussion.
Bulgaria on Friday ruled out again a possible reversal of its veto following a meeting with EU officials.
The Czech Republic’s Kulhanek said it is “not fair” for one EU member nation to condition the enlargement process on a bilateral dispute.
“This is a crucial time, and we cannot allow (the process) to be stuck with 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 agreed to formal accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje settled a nearly three decade-long dispute with neighboring Greece over the country’s name, which saw it renamed North Macedonia.
Western Balkan countries are at different stages of EU membership talks. Serbia and Montenegro have already started negotiating some chapters of their membership agreements. Kosovo and Bosnia have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step to membership.