TIRANA, Albania — Albania's prime minister on Tuesday complained about the delay in the launch of European Union membership negotiations with his country, saying Bulgaria's veto is holding the process hostage.
Edi Rama spoke at a news conference with European commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who is on a regional tour ahead of the Oct. 6 summit of the European Council on Western Balkans.
Rama called Albania's situation as "absurd," noting that Bulgaria is blocking the start of talks with North Macedonia and as a result is also holding up Albania.
The western Balkan states — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — are at different stages on the EU membership path. Their progress in integration has been delayed recently due to the bloc's stalled interest in enlargement and the years of diplomatic turmoil the EU faced as Britain left the bloc.
Albania and North Macedonia have both fulfilled the criteria for beginning membership negotiations, but EU member Bulgaria opposes North Macedonia's membership, citing a bilateral dispute over history and national identity. As the two countries' bids are linked and since launching accession talks with a prospective member requires unanimous approval from all 27 EU nations, the veto has also prevented Albania from moving forward.
Von der Leyen pledged to make efforts to persuade EU countries to hold inter-governmental conferences with Albania and North Macedonia this year. Senior officials from the United States have also warned that Western adversaries will continue to gain influence in the region if the dispute remains unresolved.
"We've asked a lot of you and you have delivered. We will do everything to overcome the hurdles we have at the moment that should not hinder the enlargement process," von der Leyen said.
"I really want to bring this process forward so that we can start before the end of the year."
Von der Leyen said the bloc is focused on mobilizing 9 billion euros ($10.5 billion) in projects and potentially raising investment of up to 20 billion euros ($23.5 billion) in 2021-2027 for the region and its population of 18 million. This year it has secured half a billion euros ($585 million) for projects in the Western Balkans, and it is looking to find another 600 million euros ($700 million).
One of Europe's youngest nations, North Macedonia, spent years resolving differences with Greece that prevented it joining the European Union and NATO. The country's path toward joining Europe's rich club is now blocked by Bulgaria.
The government in Sofia wants North Macedonia to formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots and to stamp out what it says is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric.
Von der Leyen also traveled to North Macedonia on Tuesday and will continue her trip to the other Western Balkan countries later in the week.
"The future of North Macedonia is in the European Union, we want you by our side," von der Leyen said during a news conference with North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. "Now it's on the European Union to deliver."
Zaev said any continuation of the blockage is damaging the EU's credibility.
"We took all necessary steps and we made all required reforms," he said. "We'll take the additional acceptable steps to unlock EU's enlargement and we expect that Bulgaria will unlock this process."