Brussels could potentially press ahead with talks with Albania over membership of the EU even as negotiations with North Macedonia stall, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi has said.
North Macedonia and Albania's bids for EU membership had previously been coupled together, with both nations preparing for negotiations to begin on parallel tracks.
The European Council agreed to open the latest round of accession talks with both countries in June 2020, in a move that was welcomed by all parties.
But North Macedonia's bid has been blocked by Bulgaria since last December over an apparent language dispute, stalling the country's path to EU accession yet again.
Speaking to Euronews, Várhelyi suggested that the situation could be amended by "decoupling" the two countries.
"If we run into difficulties again with North Macedonia, which means that we are unsuccessful [in] convincing Bulgarian and North-Macedonia [of] a mutually agreeable solution," he said, "then the question [is] whether we can move forward with Albania only. And we will have to consider that question."
Albania and North Macedonia had previously been scheduled to begin talks on EU membership until the process was blocked in 2019 by France and the Netherlands, which have both been hostile to admitting new members from the Western Balkans.
That in itself had come just shortly after Greece finally lifted its year-long veto on further talks with North Macedonia over a naming dispute, which only ended when the country agreed to be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.
Stalling on North Macedonia 'undermines EU credibility'
Várhelyi's comments immediately prompted a terse response from North Macedonia.
"The overwhelming majority of EU member states support having IGCs [opening membership talks] with both Albania and North Macedonia," said deputy prime minister for European affairs Nikola Dimitrov.
He added: "The case of North Macedonia is a test of EU’s credibility in the Western Balkans: will the EU keep its promises?”
Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European history and politics at Graz University, told Euronews that the latest block to North Macedonia's accession, a process that has now dragged on for more than 15 years, would have ramifications across the Balkans.
"It's really undermining EU credibility, way beyond North Macedonia," he said. "There is a genuine sense that this is never going to end. Serbia is also increasingly sceptical that they will ever see enlargement [to incorporate them into EU].
"The arbitrariness of these individual member states' blocking the process seriously damages the credibility of the process. North Macedonia has been making a lot of effort; institutions can no longer promise that if you do your homework, you get to move forward."
The possible split from Albania in the negotiations, Bieber said, would create further disillusionment in North Macedonia, which was previously coupled with Croatia before that country broke away and achieved EU membership in 2013.
The coupling process itself, he said, was part of the problem: "These linkages emerge quite randomly. There's nothing in its own right that means they have to be in the process together. But once you create these linkages, undoing them comes at a cost."
Another possible way forward would be convincing Bulgaria to give up the veto.
Reacting to the news, Slovakia's Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok wrote on Friday that a "credible" enlargement policy would instead see the veto abandoned in favour of recognising "progress made by North Macedonia", allowing both countries to advance together.
The veto came at a testing time for Bulgarian internal politics. The country's elections in April produced a fragmented parliament with no party in charge, a situation unlikely to change until July at the earliest. After that, Florian Bieber said, it might be possible to convince the new leadership to abandon the veto.
"The Bulgarian veto was always a bit frivolous," he said. "There wasn't a long history before that from which it could have been anticipated; it came out of the blue, and was seen as a kind of pre-election manoeuvre.
"At the moment no government or party is willing to take a chance on this topic. After the election, there might be some greater clarity that would allow a lift of the veto. But it also depends on the degree of pressure the other countries are willing to put on Bulgaria."
Brussels in new push for Albania to join the EU
Euronews revealed earlier this month that Brussels was planning a new push for Albania to join the bloc. Ditmir Bushati, Albania's former Minister of Foreign Affairs, said a schedule could be discussed at an inter-governmental conference in June.
Opinions within Albania on joining the EU are almost unanimous, with a recent poll by the European Commission finding 97% of Albanians in favour. At the country's recent election, none of the parties opposed EU membership, criticising their rivals over delays to the process.
As such, there is a chance that Várhelyi's comments will also bolster hopes of an end to stalling membership bids elsewhere in the Western Balkans, with Montenegro and Serbia both keen to advance the process of joining the bloc.