The European Union on Tuesday delayed a decision on whether to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia until October, dealing a fresh blow to the Balkan states' hopes.
The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, said last month that both countries had carried out reforms demanded by Brussels and formal membership talks should be launched.
But some countries, notably France and the Netherlands, are reluctant to admit new members, while Germany has yet to get parliamentary approval it needs to back talks, so the decision by ministers meeting in Luxembourg was widely expected.
"In light of the limited time available and the importance of the matter, the Council will revert to the issue with a view to reaching a clear and substantive decision as soon as possible and no later than October 2019," the European Council, which groups member states, said after the talks.
Albanian and Macedonian leaders have been shuttling through Brussels in recent weeks to push their cases ahead Tuesday's meeting, but top EU officials including Council President Donald Tusk and Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker publicly warned them to expect disappointment.
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Critics say enlarging the EU further risks importing problems, pointing to ongoing corruption and justice issues in Romania and Bulgaria. But supporters argue that turning down new members risks driving them into the arms of outside powers such as China and Russia.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev warned earlier this month that delaying the start of talks could topple his government and usher in nationalist, anti-EU forces, while Albanian premier Edi Rama has said trust in the EU would be damaged if it did not keep its promises.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said he was "extremely confident we'll get a green light in October" but warned member states not to fall into "indecision and inaction".
"Our collective credibility is at stake and our leverage for tough reforms across the region are equally at stake," he told reporters, calling the delay "unfortunate".
Highlighting deep divisions within the EU on the issue, 13 members -- mostly former communist states in Eastern Europe, but also Italy and Austria -- last week published a joint call for talks with Skopje and Tirana to start immediately.
European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker (R), had warned Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama to expect disappointment about accession talks