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The respective presidents of the European Council and European Union Commission on February 16 voiced the desire to maintain close relations with countries in the Balkans as the EU seeks to preserve credibility with them after membership hopes for Albania and North Macedonia were recently dashed.

“I think it is in our common geostrategic interest to have the Western Balkans as close as possible to the European Union,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels as an informal EU-Western Balkans meeting takes place on February 16-17.

European Council President Charles Michel said he looks “forward to a frank, intense, and open discussion” with the leaders of the six Western Balkan nations ahead of a key summit in Zagreb in May.

The EU commonly refers to the Western Balkans as comprising Albania and those successor states of Yugoslavia, which haven’t joined the 27-nation bloc.

In October, Albania and North Macedonia were told EU membership talks would be postponed despite major reforms on their part.

However, the EU has since re-calibrated how it conducts accession negotiations in order to reverse frustrations that were triggered by the French president’s denying membership hopes.

Von der Leyen said in Brussels that the new methodology emphasizes structural reforms — or how a government functions — and creates a credible prospect for the Balkan countries to join the EU after a certain time, according to reporting by dpa.

After French President Emmanuel Macron led a small group that vetoed accession talks last year with North Macedonia and Albania, the social democrat government in Skopje resigned in January and new elections set to take place in April.

“We are going to work today and tomorrow for the next European Council (summit) to open the door to the European perspective of the Balkan countries,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on February 16.

In addition, the European Commission is scheduled to publish an individual report for candidate countries Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, and Serbia.

With reporting by dpa and AFP