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BRUSSELS: The European Union launched membership negotiations on Tuesday with Albania and North Macedonia – a long-delayed step towards joining the bloc.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warmly congratulated prime ministers Edi Rama of Albania and Dimitar Kovacevski of Macedonia.

“This is what your citizens have been waiting for so long and have been working for so hard, and this is what they deserve,” she said.

The process of joining what is today a 27-member bloc could still take years, but the formal step marks a small victory for the candidates.

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“It is a great satisfaction that, after 17 years today, we are finally starting the negotiations,” said Kovacevksi, whose country faced many hurdles, including a forced name change, on the path towards the EU.

“We are opening new perspectives for our country and for the citizens and steadily but surely we are joining the large European family.” Rama, whose country applied for membership in 2009, admitted that the talks might take a while.

“We know it’s not the beginning of the end, it’s just the end of the beginning,” he said, paraphrasing British premier Winston Churchill’s comment in 1942 – three years before the end of World War II.

But von der Leyen hailed Tuesday’s step forward, arguing that both Tirana and Skopje had already made great progress in reforms to adopt European norms and standards.

“You’ve demonstrated resilience. You maintained faith in the accession process. You strengthened the rule of law. You fought against corruption. You have free media,” she said.

“You have a vibrant civil society. You’ve done countless reforms, and you’ve modernised your economy.”

Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and changed its name to North Macedonia in 2018 to overcome a bitter dispute with Greece that had blocked its NATO membership bid.

The route to the European Union was still blocked, however, first by reticence in western capitals, particularly Paris, about allowing in their relatively poor and politically unruly Balkan neighbours.

Then Skopje’s neighbour Bulgaria ambushed the bid, vetoing any progress over a raft of complaints about recognition of North Macedonia’s history, culture and language.

On Saturday, Kovacevksi’s government announced that it had reached a compromise with Sofia involving further constitutional changes, but he could yet face more opposition at home.

In Brussels, however, it was all smiles as the leaders formally marked the start of negotiations.

Germany has been a champion of North Macedonia’s cause, and minister for Europe Anna Luerhrmann hailed “a truly historic day” and promised progress once the constitutional changes are passed.

“North Macedonia can rely on the EU,” she said.

“Today we clearly decide that the second inter-governmental conference will take place as soon as the constitutional amendments are passed.

“This is set in stone, this cannot be changed by Bulgaria or anyone else.”

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