BRUSSELS (AP) -- The European Union on Tuesday is starting the long enlargement process that aims to lead to the membership of Albania and North Macedonia in the bloc.
Any expansion beyond the 27 EU member states is likely to be years off, and both nations were already considered potential candidates 19 years ago. Despite the stalling, the Western Balkan nations have persevered in their ambition to become part of the world's most important trade bloc.
"Today, Albania and North Macedonia open accession negotiations with the EU. This historic moment is your success. The result of your hard work," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the prime ministers of Albania, Edi Rama, and North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovacevski.
"This is not the beginning of the end, it is just the end of the beginning," Rama said, presaging, many years of scrutiny and possible issues with current member states who have to approve any membership expansion by unanimity. "It is how it is," Rama added. "We need this to continue to build a strong, democratic, European Albania and a strong, democratic, Western and open Balkans."
Officially, the process was kicked off with the presentation of the negotiating frameworks, which will allow the EU head office to screen how well each nation is prepared to take on all the laws, rules and regulation of the bloc.
The move comes at a crucial time for the EU, which has just reached out to war-torn Ukraine to offer it the perspective of membership even though Western Balkan nations were kept in the waiting line for such a long time.
Especially for North Macedonia, the past years have been trying. It was only last week that the North Macedonian parliament opened the way for negotiations to join, overcoming objections from Bulgaria.
The Balkan EU member state had until recently held up any progress for the accession talks, accusing North Macedonia's government of disrespecting shared cultural, linguistic and historic ties.
Kovacevski said was particularly enthusiastic about promoting his country's language.
"This open doors for our Macedonian language to become one of the official languages of the European Union. Something that I personally see as the greatest achievement, the greatest success," he said.