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Brussel, Belgium - - The 27 member states of the European Union agreed on Monday to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje resolved a long dispute with its EU neighbour Bulgaria.
The EU's member states have "just agreed to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia!" tweeted Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.
"We have taken another important step towards bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU," he added after the green light was approved in a meeting of EU envoys in Brussels.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his North Macedonian counterpart Dimitar Kovacevski were expected in Brussels on Tuesday to formally start the accession talks that will take years.
The beginning of talks comes after North Macedonia and Bulgaria on Sunday signed a French proposal that would make Macedonian an official language in the EU, as well as provide other guarantees.
Bulgaria had until recently blocked any progress for accession talks because of a dispute between the countries over a long list of linguistic and historical issues.
The dispute also stalled Albania's bid to become a member of the 27-nation bloc, due to a long-held policy that the ambitions of both countries to join the EU be treated together.
Under the pressure of France, which held the EU presidency until July 1, last month the Bulgarian parliament agreed to lift its veto in exchange for EU guarantees that North Macedonia will meet certain demands on contentious issues.
North Macedonia was designated as a candidate for EU membership nearly 20 years ago. It already worked through big differences with Greece in order to join NATO in March 2020.
Albania was awarded candidate status by the EU in 2014.
The strategic importance of the Western Balkans to the EU has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, with fears over Moscow's influence in the region.
© Agence France-Presse