Reuters International

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama arrives to attend the Western Balkans summit at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 4, 2016. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

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By Matt Robinson

TIRANA (Reuters) - France's presidential vote and Germany's coming election will breathe new life into the project of European Union enlargement, Albania's prime minister said on Tuesday, predicting the bloc would start accession talks with Tirana by the end of 2017.

Speaking ahead of a June 25 parliamentary election, Edi Rama told Reuters that Albania had a “good chance” of securing the start of coveted membership negotiations within months thanks to a drive to reform the country's corrupt court system and root out crooked judges. Such talks can last years.

He dismissed speculation that an EU push to create a common market in the Balkans – with a framework deal potentially on the table of a summit in Trieste next month – could emerge as an alternative to membership of the bloc, something he said the six Balkan countries involved would “never swallow”.

While acknowledging troubles facing the EU and their impact on its appetite for enlargement, Rama said he was optimistic the mood would improve after the election of pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron as French president in May and September polls in Germany widely expected to return Angela Merkel as chancellor.

“I'm very confident after the French and German elections the German-French axis will be strengthened,” Rama said, speaking in English. “I'm sure the project will be back in full force because there is no alternative.”

The push for a common market comprising Albania and ex-Yugoslav Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo has gained new traction as the EU tries to re-engage with the region after a spate of political and diplomatic crises and amid concern over the influence of Russia.

Slovenia and Croatia, both former Yugoslav republics, joined the EU in 2004 and 2013 respectively.

The bloc is pushing for agreement on the outline of a common market on July 12 in Italy's Trieste. It will be the fourth such summit after Berlin in 2014, Vienna in 2015 and Paris in 2016.

SUNRISE IN BERLIN...

The project, however, has alarmed some advocates of EU expansion, who fear it could emerge as an alternative to EU membership, a weak attempt to encourage reform, economic development and stability without the carrot of accession.

Rama, whose Socialists are ahead in opinion polls before the election, said he and his Balkan counterparts would never accept that, and had told EU leaders so.

“This is something we have always made clear and when I say we I mean all the leaders of the region have made clear,” he said. “We will never swallow it as an alternative to European integration.”

He said EU leaders had responded that the common market would be a “complementary process”.

Rama said Albania was very supportive of the idea, but he was coy about prospects of a deal in Trieste.

Serbia, too, firmly backs the project, but some of the other countries that emerged from federal Yugoslavia, most vocally Kosovo, are suspicious about talk of a new union in which Belgrade would likely wield the greatest clout given its size.

“We'll see,” Rama said of the chances of a deal at the Trieste summit.

“When we started this process in Berlin, it was a shining, rising sun. Then we went to Vienna. It was a good lunch. Then in Paris was sunset. I don't know if Trieste will be a full night or will be a new morning. I don't know.”

(Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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