Samantha Power, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), announced via Twitter on 17 July that the Balkan nations of North Macedonia and Albania have established joint border control points with USAID support. By doing this, the customs administrations of the two countries have entered into an agreement to operate border measures jointly by coordinating export and import controls and physical and technical requirements. “In a region where divisions can be stark, we’re fostering collaboration and new business opportunities — while helping both countries take a key step towards joining the European Union,” said Power.
Former Yugoslav state North Macedonia and its neighbor Albania have long been entrenched in the geopolitical instability and tumult of the Balkan region of Europe. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, ethnic, religious, historical and linguistic divisions came into focus. The potential EU accession of the two Balkan states stands as a crucial yet highly contentious political and economic issue in international diplomacy. Albania and North Macedonia, both official EU candidates, have each struggled with the process of negotiating membership for over a decade. North Macedonia was officially included in the agenda for EU enlargement in 2005, and Albania in 2009, but no diplomatic progress was made due to numerous conflicts and disputes revolving around geographic and ethnic divisions. North Macedonia joined NATO in 2020 but continues to push for accession to the EU after 16 years of formal candidacy. According to German news outlet Deutsche Welle, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev remarked that his country is “surrounded completely by European Union member countries” but is still denied membership.
On 25 March 2020 the European Commission gave the green light to open accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. However, according to a press release from the commission, this decision is subject to “final endorsement by EU members.” President of the commission Ursula von der Leyen said “The EU delivers on its promise. North Macedonia and Albania did what was asked of them and have continued making progress in the reforms needed. Today marks the start of the journey to a bigger and stronger EU.” However, despite this progress, on 23 June 2021 the General Affairs Council of the EU failed to reach an agreement on commencing talks. According to European Western Balkans, “while all 27 EU ministers, in the case of Albania, and 26 in the case of North Macedonia agreed that the two countries have met the criteria for talks to begin, the Bulgarian veto blocked both countries’ path at this time.”
The June decision left Albania with no date for future negotiations because its accession is tied to that of North Macedonia. The negotiations for both countries are conditional upon the fulfillment of a number of requirements revolving around electoral and judicial reforms and respect for the human rights of minority groups. The Greek minority group in Albania has long suffered from the prohibition of their language being spoken outside recognized minority zones and, according to Greek minority leaders, the existence of Greek communities outside these demarcated zones is outright denied.
Linguistic disputes continue to stand as a core diplomatic issue for Balkan states and encapsulate the deep-seated divisions that exist in the region as a result of 20th century political events. While Albania’s treatment of its Greek minority, as well as its issues with electoral and judicial corruption, are extremely pressing obstacles to human rights, the EU must assist Albania and North Macedonia in their long processes of accession. The work of USAID offers a positive step in the direction of EU membership for both states.
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