Leading EU official calls bloc's expansion a “top priority”

North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski talks to the media during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has arrived in a brief visit to North Macedonia Saturday, as part of his regional tour, in another bid Sofia and Skopje to find solution on bilateral dispute that block North Macedonia and Albania to start membership talks with the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Combined ShapeCaption
North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski talks to the media during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has arrived in a brief visit to North Macedonia Saturday, as part of his regional tour, in another bid Sofia and Skopje to find solution on bilateral dispute that block North Macedonia and Albania to start membership talks with the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

European Council President Charles Michel is visiting North Macedonia

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — European Council President Charles Michel visited North Macedonia on Thursday and said efforts to start European Union membership talks with the landlocked Balkan country and neighboring Albania have become a "top priority" since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

EU-member Bulgaria has blocked the start of those accession talks, insisting that North Macedonia officially recognizes common aspects of the neighbors' history and language. The impasse has also tied up Albania's bid.

"The war in Ukraine opened a new chapter in European history and put EU enlargement at the forefront," Michel said at the joint press conference with North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski in the lakeside resort of Ohrid.

“The EU is firmly committed to your entry into the EU and the start of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania to begin as soon as possible. This is a top priority and we support all efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution to the open bilateral issue with Bulgaria,” Michel said.

Concerned over regional stability, the European Union has invited leaders of Western Balkan countries ‒ including North Macedonia and Albania ‒ to an EU leaders meeting on June 23.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the region last week to try and break the impasse, in an effort also backed by southern neighbor Greece.

At next week's meeting in Brussels, EU leaders also are expected to consider whether to make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership.

North Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004 and received a positive assessment from the European Commission a year later.

EU leaders agreed to formal accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje settled in 2018 a nearly three decade-long dispute with neighboring Greece over the country’s name, which saw it renamed North Macedonia.

Western Balkan countries are at different stages of EU membership talks. Serbia and Montenegro have already started negotiating some chapters of their membership agreements. Kosovo and Bosnia have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward membership.

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Follow AP's coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Combined ShapeCaption
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left and North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, right, shake hands after their news conference in the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has arrived in a brief visit to North Macedonia Saturday, as part of his regional tour, in another bid Sofia and Skopje to find solution on bilateral dispute that block North Macedonia and Albania to start membership talks with the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Credit: Boris Grdanoski

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left and North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, right, shake hands after their news conference in the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has arrived in a brief visit to North Macedonia Saturday, as part of his regional tour, in another bid Sofia and Skopje to find solution on bilateral dispute that block North Macedonia and Albania to start membership talks with the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Credit: Boris Grdanoski

Combined ShapeCaption
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left and North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, right, shake hands after their news conference in the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has arrived in a brief visit to North Macedonia Saturday, as part of his regional tour, in another bid Sofia and Skopje to find solution on bilateral dispute that block North Macedonia and Albania to start membership talks with the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Credit: Boris Grdanoski

Credit: Boris Grdanoski