TIRANA (Reuters) - European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told Western Balkan countries on Sunday to see 2025 as the date when any of them could join the European Union provided they worked to meet the criteria for membership.
Stopping in Albania following a visit to Macedonia on a tour of countries aspiring to join the EU, Juncker said 2025 was a possible entry date for all, not just the frontrunners.
“Contrary to what we read everywhere, the Commission and myself did not say that Serbia and Montenegro would necessarily be members of the EU in 2025,” Juncker told reporters in Tirana.
“The 2025 date is open to all candidate countries,” he said.
“And to the extent that a candidate country by then or later or earlier would have met all the criteria for membership, we will proceed in such a way that its efforts will be recognised by the EU,” he told a news conference.
Flanking Juncker at the news conference, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said the vetting of judges and prosecutors, the first step of judiciary reforms the EU says are key to opening negotiations, had already produced its first results.
“Seventeen senior judges and prosecutors refused to be vetted, so they are out of the judiciary,” Rama said.
Serbia and Montenegro are seen as frontrunners to join the EU. They are negotiating several chapters of the many they need to address before joining, although they have completed work on just a few.
Albania and Macedonia expect to be given the green light to start accession negotiations in June.
By reforming its judiciary Albania has almost negotiated chapters 23 and 24, effectively buying time to catch up with the frontrunners, European officials have explained.
“The justice reform is enshrined in the Albanian constitution: honestly, we have crossed the river,” a European official who declined to be identified said.
The EU’s verdict on Albania will have to wait until spring when it will rely on aerial monitoring by Italy to see if cannabis smugglers will be planting the drug again.
The government cracked down on cannabis in 2014, but police later failed in 2015 and 2016 to stop Albania from becoming one of the biggest open air cultivators of cannabis in Europe.
Investigators from Italy said in November that aerial monitoring had turned up just 90 cannabis plots in 2017 compared with 2,086 in 2016, prompting the government to claim victory.
Reporting By Benet Koleka, Editing by William Maclean