North Macedonia's prime minister on Wednesday urged the EU to start membership talks with Skopje immediately, warning any delay could topple his government and bolster nationalist, anti-European parties.
EU member states are expected to discuss Skopje's bid to join the bloc in Luxembourg later this month, and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev warned that a negative response would open the door to greater influence from outside powers like Russia and China.
The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, says North Macedonia and Albania are both ready to start talks to join the EU, but several existing members such as France and the Netherlands are reluctant.
"With a negative decision, they will bring back nationalism and radicalism again in North Macedonia and in whole region," Zaev told reporters in Brussels.
"They will open the space for third sides like China and Russia."
North Macedonia has made major changes under Zaev as it seeks to join the EU and NATO -- not least amending the constitution to change the country's name from Macedonia in order to settle a long-running spat with Greece.
Zaev said his government had expended huge political capital to make these achievements and Macedonians would not respond well to being let down after 15 years of waiting to join the EU.
"We promised to parliamentarians that they will for sure get a positive decision from the European Union if we go forward," Zaev said.
"Now if Europe doesn't deliver, the government will probably be destroyed."
Last year, EU member states agreed to start accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania but only in June this year, and only if they met certain conditions, particularly improvements in the fight against crime and corruption.
After a positive progress report from the commission, another postponement would push Macedonians to support "bigger nationalism, bigger radicalism", boosting opposition parties who are against the trajectory towards the West.
The decision to start accession talks rests with the existing member states and some are very reluctant. They point to ongoing corruption and rule of law problems in Bulgaria and Romania, admitted in 2007, as a warning against acting too hastily.
France, one of the bloc's two main powerhouses, has been particularly vocal, with President Emmanuel Macron insisting there must be "a deepening and improvement" of the existing union before any more enlargement.
In contrast with the stop-start EU process, Skopje's NATO membership bid has advanced rapidly since the name deal with Greece a year ago, with allies signing an accession protocol in February.
An EU diplomat said ambassadors from the 28 member states discussed the matter with Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn on Tuesday, with a "great majority" in favour of starting talks but France and the Netherlands still opposed.
Any decision to open talks needs the unanimous backing of all 28.
A further complication is the need for Germany to have the backing of its parliament before giving its approval. The Bundestag has little sitting time to discuss the issue before the meeting in Luxembourg on June 18.
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