EU membership: North Macedonia shows confidence, despite obstacles

EU membership: North Macedonia shows confidence, despite obstacles

North Macedonia’s prime minister cut a fine figure on Tuesday (July 19) at the official opening of EU membership talks, even as unrest grows at home with a nationalist movement threatening to upend the process.

Speaking alongside Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski, Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi told reporters after the first Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) that the “the message addressed today to the citizens of North Macedonia is very clear: we want you in the EU, there is no doubt about it”.

“We are also sending a very strong message to the whole region and even beyond”he added.

The next step in the accession process will be for the European Commission to begin a process of rigorous scrutiny of the candidate country’s legislation to determine its level of compliance with EU law, Mr Varhelyi said.

“I am very confident that with the determination of North Macedonia, we can work quickly, tenaciously and also efficiently throughout the negotiations”he added.

A mini EU model?

Mr Kovačevski said his country was already “like a small Europe”. “We are an example of a multi-ethnic country integrated into the EU, we live the European model of being united in diversity; North Macedonia is a country of friendship and coexistence. »

The country has indeed been the prey of an armed conflict between the Macedonian army and police and the Albanian paramilitary army of national liberation, which the international community managed to put an end to thanks to the Ohrid agreements of 2001.

Western countries, including the United States, have been pushing for Skopje to start EU membership talks, fearing destabilization could play into Russia’s hands.

North Macedonia is currently divided between the ruling pro-European party SDSM and the nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE, which opposes the French mediation thanks to which the EU accession process was unblocked.

Former VMRO-DPMNE leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is a close friend of Hungarian Viktor Orbán. Mr. Gruevski, who was sentenced to prison for abuse of power, escaped justice and was granted asylum in Hungary.

Despite the start of negotiations, the government in place faces a political minefield.

North Macedonia must, before starting the opening chapters, modify its constitution by adding the Bulgarians among the peoples who form the nation.

In the absence of a two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, the opening of negotiations risks remaining a symbolic gesture, likely to trigger new internal political struggles and fuel new protest movements.

The country’s government announced over the weekend that it had reached a compromise with Bulgaria in a long-running dispute that had blocked the start of EU membership talks.

“We have adopted a decision which contributes to preserving the Macedonian identity, language and culture, and the specific characteristics of the EU accept us as Macedonians speaking the Macedonian language, fully respecting our identity characteristics — this is assured for real “Mr. Kovacevski told reporters at the end of the negotiations.

“These are things that will never be negotiated”he added.

Protests have escalated in recent weeks, however, with the country’s opposition rallying in the thousands to fight any new compromises with Bulgaria and the EU.

In response to a question about opposition to the Bulgaria deal, Mr Kovacevski said the process has gone “according to the most democratic and transparent procedure, in which all stakeholders of Macedonian society participated, whether political parties, universities, media, NGOs or experts. »

Bulgaria, however, continues to consider the Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian and tabled a memorandum recalling its position at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Monday.

Seeking to reassure Skopje, EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell told the IGC that “on your way to the EU, you won’t lose your identity — none of us do”.

“Your identity will remain and it will be enriched by other identities which are not competing, but complementary”he said, adding that Skopje would not need the conclusion of the EU summit to know that “North Macedonia, with its identity, its own identity, its rich history and culture, has always been part of Europe”.

Foreign Policy Alignment

North Macedonia was nominated as a candidate for EU membership almost 20 years ago, having already overcome major differences with Greece in order to join NATO in March 2020.

“North Macedonia is already 100% aligned with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy”Borrell said at the conference.

“Being aligned with EU foreign policy and sanctions is not a technical exercise, and we don’t take it for granted — it’s expensive, and it has to be borne”Borrell said.

“This is not a simple transaction of interests, but a relationship based on shared principles, values ​​and goals”he added. “Your total alignment clearly speaks to the strategic direction you have chosen”he told the assembly.

At the same time, the strategic importance of the Western Balkans for the EU has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has raised concerns about Moscow’s influence in the region.

If North Macedonia and other Balkan countries remain outside the EU, the region will be an area ” vulnerable “ to the penetration of “evil powers”including Russia, the country’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, told AFP.

However, the longer the countries in question delay joining the Union, the more anti-European voices gain ground and stir up tensions in regions such as North Macedonia.

“I am afraid that some populist movements may come to power and some anti-European leaders will take power in Skopje, which will certainly not be good for the pan-European idea”Mr. Pendarovski said.

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