June 26, 2017 / 4:37 PM / 2 months ago

EU ready to assist Macedonia implement reforms to unlock membership

SKOPJE (Reuters) - The European Union's commissioner in charge of enlargement said on Monday the bloc will help Macedonia make key reforms such as ensuring judicial and media independence to unlock the country's path towards EU and NATO membership

Johannes Hahn arrived in Skopje on Monday to attend a cabinet meeting scheduled to debate a reform agenda.

"Tomorrow the first experts from the European Union will be in town to assist you in all these reforms," Hahn told reporters after he met the cabinet.

Last month's election of Zoran Zaev's cabinet ended a two-year long political crisis, the biggest since Western diplomacy helped drag the former Yugoslav republic back from the brink of civil war in 2001 during an ethnic Albanian insurgency.

After meeting Hahn, Zaev said his government would be committed to reforms and would work hard to get a green light to open accession talks by the end of this year.

"As the Commission we have, I have every interest to arrive to a point where we can give a positive recommendation," Hahn said. But this is to a very high extent, linked to concrete progress on the area of urgent reform priorities."

A stand-off between Zaev's Socialists and nationalist VMRO-DPMNE triggered by a wiretapping scandal in 2015 prompted the EU to broker an agreement in which parties signed up to an early election and a set of reforms to ensure freedom of media and independence of judiciary.

After the December election, Zaev engineered a coalition with two parties representing ethnic Albanians, who comprise a third of the 2.1 million population. The new cabinet pledged to put reforms from the EU-brokered agreement high on its agenda.

Macedonia's accession into the EU and NATO has been blocked over a name dispute with Greece, which has a northern province called Macedonia and regards Skopje's use of the name as a territorial grab.

Earlier this month Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said Athens would back Macedonia's European integration "in every way, once the name issue has been resolved". Athens has previously insisted Skopje use a compound name such as "New" or "Upper" Macedonia.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Ivana Sekularac Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

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