Accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania started in Brussels on Tuesday in what was described as a "historic moment" for the two Western Balkans countries and for the European Union.
"What a historic moment," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters during a joint press statement with the leaders of the two countries.
"The people of Albania and North Macedonia deserve it, and we will all stand to gain when one day we welcome Albania and North Macedonia as full-fledged members of our European Union," she added.
For North Macedonia, this moment has been 17 years in the making as the country of two million inhabitants first became a candidate country in 2005. But its road to EU accession was until now paved with vetoes.
The first hurdle came from Greece which requested a change to the country's name. This was resolved through the Prespa agreement in 2018 in which Skopje agreed to add "North" to its name. Then, France threw another spanner in the works calling for the whole enlargement process to be reformed and finally, Bulgaria kicked the can further down the road demanding recognition of cultural and historical ties.
This last veto was lifted late last month after the then-French presidency of the EU put forward a proposal that was accepted by both sides and under which North Macedonia will have to amend its constitution to recognise an ethnic Bulgarian minority.
How did we get there?
The slow accession process of North Macedonia and Albania — and of other Western Balkans countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia — has seen accusations of double standards and hypocrisy lobbed at the EU.
The two Western Balkan countries did the work required of them as candidate countries to strengthen rule of law, create the tools to efficiently fight corruption, as well as protect the independence of the media and civil society. Yet, despite Brussels affirming time and time again that the process is "merit-based", progress from the EU side failed to materialise.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine in an unprovoked and unwarranted military attack.
The return of traditional warfare on European soil sharpened minds across EU capitals and talks of enlargement reignited again as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia all swiftly put in their own bids to join.
Within weeks, Ukraine and Moldova were given candidate status, something most Western Balkans EU hopefuls took years to secure. An EU-Western Balkans summit in June saw many of their leaders vent frustrations at the lack of progress.
France, which held the rotating six-month presidency of the EU Council until June 30, worked behind the scenes to put forward a proposal to lift the Bulgaria veto of North Macedonia.
Macedonian lawmakers backed the French proposal on Saturday, two days after Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Skopje to urge them to do so, promising that negotiations would start in earnest.
Albania, which submitted its own application for EU membership in 2009 was largely seen as collateral damage of the Macedonian delay as its bid was coupled with that of its neighbour. This means it could only advance through the process in tandem with North Macedonia.
"It goes without saying that we would not have been here today without the extra efforts of the French president and the French presidency and Emmanuel (Macron, the French president) and his team, who worked tirelessly, especially during the NATO summits, day and nights. I could witness it to get to the final French proposal, which opened the way to this unblocking of an absurd situation," Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama told reporters on Tuesday morning.
What happens next
The first phase of the accession negotiations entails "screening" of the EU acquis.
"The screening will enable Albania and North Macedonia to get familiar with the rights and obligations of our union, from treaties to legislation to international agreements, you name it," von der Leyen said, promising that "we will proceed very quickly with that."
Then negotiations can begin apace with the candidates required to continue reforms to reach EU standards which are monitored and assessed regularly. The Accession Treaty is then ratified when all parties are satisfied with the progress made.
The length of negotiations differs from country to country. It took Austria, Finland and Sweden just two years of negotiations to join the bloc, for Croatia it was closer to eight. On average, it takes just under five years.
Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski expressed confidence on Tuesday that the process will be fast.
"Our place is in the European Union. We have said many times so far that we are a reliable partner for the European Union and for its member states and we will continue to work and function in this way. That is why I expect that we will have a positive example of fastest integration of a member state into the European Union, just as we had the fastest integration of a member state into NATO," he said.
"We are ready for the European Union. I am sincerely joyous, together with the citizens, for today's welcome from the European Union. If we can predict a day by the beginning, then this will surely be an excellent day, a historic one. A day that will make us proud," he added.
But his hope could be scuppered by his own country's lawmakers. The French proposal was approved by 68 out of 120 Macedonian lawmakers after opposition parties, which organised daily protests in the week leading to the parliamentary vote, boycotted.
They have already warned that they will oppose the constitutional amendment required by the French proposal to lift the Bulgarian veto, which can only be passed with a two-thirds majority.