By Robin Emmott and Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - North Macedonia is likely to win European Union support to start membership talks later this year, diplomats say, but its Balkan neighbor Albania faces opposition in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Despite EU rhetoric that the bloc needs to accept new members from the Western Balkans to cement their European path and offset Chinese and Russian influence, anti-immigration sentiment has raised doubts in some northern EU states.
Backed by a number of EU governments and the European Commission, Albania and North Macedonia had hoped that the bloc's Europe ministers would give the go-ahead to membership talks at a meeting next Tuesday in Luxembourg.
That would have cleared the way for approval by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on June 20-21.
But neither country will be given the green light then, diplomats and EU officials told Reuters, even though 13 EU countries including Italy and Poland, the European Council's President Donald Tusk and the Commission have publicly called for formal negotiations to begin.
Now, the latest agreement is to reach a deal among EU governments in September, but only for North Macedonia, which is also set to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2020.
"North Macedonia has a good chance (for EU membership talks), given the historic resolution of its name issue," one senior EU official said, referring to a decades-old dispute with Greece that blocked its path to the EU and the NATO alliance.
The name change from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia has given Skopje momentum and is likely to persuade Paris, Berlin and The Hague to back EU talks.
"But Albania is still a big issue for some governments. It is not looking so promising," the official said.
Perceived as one of Europe's most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, Albania - which is already a NATO member - has made only limited progress in combating money laundering, EU and U.S. officials say, despite firing corrupt judges and prosecutors.
Four other Western Balkan nations - Bosnia, Kosovo and the two frontrunners Serbia and Montenegro - are also seeking EU membership.
In June 2018, France and the Netherlands unexpectedly blocked the start of EU talks for Albania and North Macedonia, seeking more reforms. Diplomats said the move reflected concerns about the impact on voters in EU elections in May, 2019.
With the European Parliament election out of the way, France and the Netherlands were expected to fall into line, while the EU headquarters invited Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama and North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski to Brussels.
On a visit to Brussels earlier this month, Sokol Dedja, Albania's deputy Europe and foreign minister, said it was time for the bloc to stop using the need for preparatory reforms "as a way of keeping countries out of the European Union."
EU membership talks, which typically last up to a decade, are a de facto reform process to bring nations up to EU levels.
Despite victories in the EU election for the far-right in Italy, Poland and Hungary, talks of future membership for Albania and North Macedonia did not appear to play into the hands of those pledging to stop immigration. French and Dutch far-right parties lost seats compared to their showing in 2014.
However, on June 11, the Dutch parliament passed a motion opposing the opening of talks with Albania, although a similar motion for North Macedonia did not pass.
The German government wants a green light for Macedonia, but there is no agreement on Albania, which the center-right in the coalition see as a problem state. The Bundestag lower house has agreed to postpone any decision until September.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in The Hague and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)