Czech Presidency must rise to the occasion with EU enlargement
European Council President Charles Michel was in Skopje on Tuesday (July 5) to convince Macedonians to agree to a deal that could relaunch their EU membership talks, giving new impetus to enlargement of the EU in the Balkans.
While this politically hard-to-accept agreement is the latest in a series of tough choices imposed on candidates for membership in the region, the European Union must for its part avoid repeating its past mistakes in its new promise of enlargement to Ukraine and Moldova.
The Czech Republic, which currently provides the rotating presidency of the EU council for six months, will have to find a balance between, on the one hand, countries which recommend rapid membership of Ukraine to the block and, on the other hand , countries that focus on Western Balkans.
During his visit to North Macedonia, Charles Michel stressed that it was a “Crucial moment” for the country and urged the Macedonians to accept the French proposal which would allow the accession process to take into account certain points of disagreement with Bulgaria, in particular culture, language and identity.
“Your country has a chance to once again become a leader in enlargement”said Mr. Michel.
“Personally, I am completely convinced that this is a balanced solution that addresses your main concerns. The objective is clear: to start negotiations for the accession of North Macedonia and to finally move forward to build our common European future”said Mr. Michel.
The President of the Council said that if Skopje says “yes”, the first intergovernmental conference will be organized in the next few days and the other stages will follow without delay.
“What is important is that this proposal clearly refers to the Macedonian language, without reservations from the EU. The Macedonian language is your language and the proposal respects it. The acquis, the European legislation, will all be translated into Macedonian”said Michel, in an attempt to reassure critics of the French proposal.
“We are also very aware of the concerns expressed by some regarding your national identity. You can count on my full support, as President of the European Council, to systematically defend your legitimate rights.”said Mr. Michel.
Bulgaria, for its part, accepted the proposal. However, despite pressure from Brussels and neighboring Albania, whose accession path is closely linked to that of Skopje, domestic pressure to reject the compromise grew further on Tuesday in North Macedonia.
Indeed, protests outside the Macedonian parliament continued for the fourth night in a row, with several demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, injuring police. Protesters say the deal eliminates their ethnicity and have even compared Bulgaria’s attitude towards Macedonians to the rhetoric used by Russian President Vladimir Putin about Ukrainians.
Critics of the French proposal say it opens the door to negating the national identity of Macedonians.
The compromise offered to North Macedonia “fuels political and ethnic polarization in this country”Dušan Reljić, head of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told EURACTIV.
According to him, citizens believe that the proposal “Essentially promotes the objectives of Bulgarian nationalists vis-à-vis Macedonians”.
“They have not heard Mr. Michel or anyone in the EU say that, in the future, the governments of Sofia will not be able to continue to use the EU membership process to obtain new Skopje dealerships Regarding bilateral differences on history, language and ethnicity ”he added.
For Mr Reljić, the EU risks losing even more political credibility in South-Eastern Europe.
Speaking alongside Michel, Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski said the European proposal, which he described as “Positive” for Macedonians, incorporates comments from Skopje.
“The modified French proposal, defined and completed gives us what we have been fighting for years – a clear mention of the Macedonian language”said the Prime Minister, adding that the European proposal makes “False and false” All assumptions suggesting the opposite.
“We are proud of our identity, so far no one has been able to assimilate the Macedonian people, and that’s a fact”Mr. Kovacevski said.
No choice “is or south” for enlargement
It has become more important to advance enlargement in the Balkans since the EU granted the status of candidate for Ukraine and Moldova, thus increasing the pressure for these countries to hold their promises of membership.
An agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria would make it possible to “to relaunch the European perspective of the Western Balkans at a time when they feel disadvantaged compared to Ukraine and Moldova”said Eric Maurice, director of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation in Euractiv.
As EURACTIV reported, Western Balkan leaders were very unhappy with the stalemate in enlargement on the sidelines of the European Council summit in Brussels on June 23, during which Ukraine and Moldova granted candidate status for EU membership.
However, the Czech Republic, which took over the presidency of the EU Council from France on July 1, promises to push forward enlargement in both directions.
“These two elements are not contradictory. It’s not about [choisir entre] “East and South” »Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said when interviewed by EURACTIV Czech Republic during the press conference at the start of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU.
“We can focus on both, and we want to focus on both”, added the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who also participated in the conference. “The speed of the membership process depends on them,” she said.
According to Fiala, the European Union should open its doors to the Western Balkans to protect the region from Russian propaganda and avoid potential destabilization.
In October 2022, the Czech Presidency will organize an informal summit in Prague. Member States and other European countries will also participate, “from Iceland to Ukraine”.
“It is in our interest to all. The EU cannot just look east or south. She has to look in all directions.”said Mr. Fiala.
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