Outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk devoted his time on 16 September to make a final push in support of the EU accession aspirations of both Albania and North Macedonia, both of which remain extremely worried that an EU decision due in October might not yield the hoped-for green light to launch formal accession talks.

The leaderships in both countries are concerned that the incoming team of Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen may shift priorities away from early enlargement, leaving them with an extended and indefinite waiting period before formal accession talks, which will take years in the best case, are initiated.

Von der Leyen’s choice for Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Policy, Hungary’s former Minister of Justice Laszlo Trocsanyi, also provided a major shock in both Skopje and Tirana, a result of the tangled Budapest-Skopje relationship after Hungarian  Premier Viktor Orbán allowed his country to grant asylum to Nikola Gruevski, the former hardline Prime Minister of  North Macedonia who left his country to avoid arrest under questionable circumstances that reportedly involved logistical support from Hungarian diplomats and transit through Albanian territory.

The sun sets on Tusk’s second term

Tusk’s second term as Council President ends in November, accordingly, he opted to use a bit of his dwindling term to implore EU leaders, who have the final say, to provide Albania and North Macedonia with a reasonable mid-term accession prospect.  Despite the Brexit mess that is consuming most of Brussels’ attention, Tusk has been arguing that Europe would not be stable without the Balkans in the European Union.

In Skopje Tusk was crystal clear when urging a clear decision in October, speaking in a joint press session with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who has closely linked his political survival with the EU’s October decision.  He explained “I expressed my personal views clearly back in June: Your country, within the last two years, has done everything that was expected of you for the EU to be able to launch the negotiations in line with the European Commission’s recommendation. That continues to be my strong conviction. Your country has done everything.”

In Tirana, Tusk faced a trickier situation.  While many EU member states back the start of accession talks for Albania, a fair number still worry about its fight against corruption and organized crime and some argue that Albania and North Macedonia should be given separate accession timetables.  Accordingly, Tusk urged Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to maintain a solid track record in fighting crime and also to foster good neighbourly relations.

Tusk told Rama he wanted to see the whole Western Balkans “follow the same path as my country, Poland, towards the EU,” and that goal had become closer. “Your country must be treated with equal respect and on its own merits, just like all other countries in the region that share your goal of becoming EU members one day,” Tusk added.