North Macedonia expects to get a date for the start of EU accession talks in October and is worried the Balkans region would be discouraged about reform if discussions do not begin, its foreign minister said on Tuesday.
In remarks to Reuters, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov added that a start to accession talks would help persuade young people not to emigrate and seek a "European style of life" elsewhere.
The former Yugoslav republic changed its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia this year, ending a more than two-decade dispute with Greece over its name and removing an obstacle to its membership of the EU and NATO.
The European Commission formally recommended in May that North Macedonia should start negotiations to join the EU. The country had hoped to get the date to start accession talks in June, but the Commission postponed the decision for October.
"The big issues are resolved. If there is no proper realisation of this opportunity this essentially means that there is no perspective for the region," Dimitrov said.
"It would send a message to other leaders in the Balkans that it is not really worth investing political capital in making difficult decisions, reforming," Dimitrov said on the sidelines of a regional political forum in Bled.
He also said North Macedonia expected to become a member of NATO in December or early next year after NATO members signed an accord on its accession in February. The accord is currently going through a ratification process in member states.
Dimitrov said foreign direct investment had increased strongly after the accord with NATO and is due to increase further once North Macedonia starts EU accession talks.
He said the country's NATO membership would bring an element of stability and predictability that was needed in the Balkans.
He could not say when North Macedonia could join the EU but added: "The process (of getting ready for EU membership) is important. The biggest battle for us is keeping youngsters at home so we need to make our country European so that they can have European style of life at home and not look for it elsewhere."
Only 50 percent of working-age Macedonians are employed, and low birth rates and emigration are shrinking the workforce, a World Bank report said in 2018.
Dimitrov said preparations for EU membership should lead to a further drop in unemployment and an increase in GDP, with more jobs leading to higher salaries.
Once a part of Yugoslavia, the country peacefully seceded in 1991 but came close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy. NATO and EU diplomacy pulled it back from the brink of civil war.