European Commission Hopes To Start EU Accession Talks With Albania, N.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she hopes to start European Union accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia before the end of the year as frustration grows in the Western Balkans over the snail-like pace of progress on the issue.
"We’ve asked a lot of you, and you have delivered. We will do everything to overcome the hurdles we have at the moment that should not hinder the enlargement process," von der Leyen said on September 28 during a visit to the Albanian capital, Tirana. "I really want to bring this process forward so that we can start before the end of the year," said von der Leyen, who is on a regional tour ahead of an EU-Western Balkans summit on Oct. 6. France blocked the start of negotiations with the two Western Balkan nations in 2019 in a move that was criticized by some fellow EU members. Bulgaria is now blocking the start of talks over a language dispute with neighboring North Macedonia. EU rules require a unanimous vote to start talks with potential new member states. The EU said it wants to start the talks with Tirana and Skopje at the same time, meaning Bulgaria’s veto of North Macedonia is impacting Albania. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who met with Von der Leyen, called the situation “absurd.” In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar, who oversees the Western Balkans, called on the EU to begin talks this year with the two counties, saying they had met the requirements. Some U.S. and EU officials say that further delays in accepting the Western Balkan nations into the bloc will only open the door to greater Russian and Chinese influence. The six Western Balkan countries -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia -- are at different stages on the EU membership path. The EU has not expanded since accepting Croatia into the bloc in 2013. The global financial crisis of 2008-2009, the European migration crisis in 2015, and Brexit are among the factors that have delayed expansion. Separately, Von der Leyen said the EU is focused on mobilizing 9 billion euros ($10.5 billion) in projects and potentially raising investment of up to 20 billion euros ($23.5 billion) in 2021-2027 for the Western Balkans and the region's 18 million people. The bloc has secured half a billion euros ($585 million) this year for projects in the Western Balkans, and it is looking to find another 600 million euros ($700 million), she said.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

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