BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Commission on Wednesday urged European Union nations to open membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, saying the Balkans countries "have delivered on reforms."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters that accession talks with the two countries should start "as soon as possible. They are ready. This is our assessment."
However, the expansion over the years of the 28-nation EU has complicated decision-making in the world's biggest trade bloc, and it's unclear whether member states will endorse the move. Upon taking up his post as commission president in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker said no countries would join the EU during his term, which ends on Oct. 31.
Mogherini said it's not as if Albania and North Macedonia would join "the union tomorrow morning. It's a complicated process."
The prospect of EU membership has been a powerful force for reforms in the volatile Balkans since the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into war in the early 1990s.
North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski welcomed Mogherini's comments, saying he expects his country to "get a fair chance and to transform itself through the opening of each separate chapter" of the accession talks.
Until recently known as Macedonia, the country has been an EU candidate member since 2005 but never opened accession talks because of a dispute with Greece. The two neighbors struck a deal last year for Macedonia to rename itself North Macedonia, in exchange for Greece dropping its objections to the country joining NATO and, eventually, the EU.
Mogherini warned that Europe is "at a crossroads. We always say that it is a merit-based process, so when merit is assessed as positive it needs to be acknowledged."
"Failure to recognize and respond to objective progress would damage the European Union's credibility," she said, adding that it could also "undermine stability and seriously discourage further reforms."
Her warning comes a day after Serbia put its troops on full alert after armed Kosovo police fired tear gas and arrested about two dozen people in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo in what they called an operation against organized crime.
EU-backed talks between Serbia and Kosovo on normalizing relations are bogged down.