Being for 17 years in the waiting room of European integration, since December 2005, it is extremely difficult to keep up the enthusiasm of the people and support for EU membership



North Macedonia's EU accession process has been ongoing since it became a candidate country in 2005. In the meantime, North Macedonia has achieved concrete progress on certain key areas, such as the fight against corruption, judicial reform, and public administration reform. At this stage, what is needed to bring North Macedonia closer to EU membership?

 It is interesting to note, not so much for the people of North Macedonia, but particularly for foreign audiences, that our next step is changing, once again, the Constitution. Constitutional experts have been numbering the times we have changed our Constitution since 1992. The first amendment in that year was to temper Greek concerns that the name of our country implied any territorial claims against Greece. So in January 1992, we changed our post-communist Constitution for the first time and up until now we have been through nine rounds of constitutional changes.

 Last year we accepted and voted for a new round of constitutional changes in our Parliament to pave the way for long overdue EU membership talks. With a simple majority of 61 votes, the 120-seat Parliament voted in favour of the so-called EU Negotiating Framework. Now, we are facing a problem because for the constitutional changes to go through, we need a two thirds majority in the Parliament (80 out of 120 MPs) and at present, there is no collaboration on the part of the opposition. The current Government is lacking that majority, which is a precondition embedded in the Negotiating Framework in order to continue with a second Inter-Governmental Conference.

The first Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) opening the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania took place in Brussels in July 2022. Right now, we are in the midst of the screening process, the first step in the accession negotiation process: The analytical examination of the body of EU laws (acquis), which allows to scrutinize our level of preparedness and plans to further alignment, and thus to obtain preliminary indications of the issues that will most likely come up in the negotiations. The screening process is structured along six thematic clusters: (1) Fundamentals; (2) Internal market; (3) Competitiveness & inclusive growth; (4) Green agenda & sustainable connectivity; (5) Resources, agriculture & cohesion and (6) External relations.

 That process is halfway. By the end of November we should formally conclude that stage. If, by December 1, we do not have an amended Constitution in place, we will be stuck, and waiting for parliamentary and presidential elections which are scheduled for the spring of 2024. We will then have to wait for the next government to try and assemble the two thirds majority required....   

Photo Credit © Kristijan Georgievski

The process is ongoing for almost two decades. Are you concerned that the enthusiasm for EU membership is diminishing among the population of North Macedonia?

Being for 17 years in the waiting room of European integration, since December 2005, it is extremely difficult to keep up the enthusiasm of the people and support for EU membership. We have been known for years to have a very high percentage of the people in favour of EU membership: in the high 80s and 90s. Now we are at around 60 percent, still a majority but a substantial drop. 

North Macedonia is very heterogeneous in religious and ethnic terms: a quarter of our population is ethnic Albanian. In religious terms, one third is Muslim. These people, nonMacedonians, are not affected at all by the demands coming towards us from Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the Republic of Bulgaria decided to put forward demands which have nothing do with EU membership criteria: rule of law, freedom of media, etc. 

The Bulgarian side has started to speak about changing the historical narratives in our textbooks. This is not in line with previous accession processes of any other candidate country. During the last two years, Bulgaria officially disseminated in Brussels in written form a few demands which have puzzled EU colleagues and shocked us too, asking us:  

  • To declare ourselves as ethnic Bulgarians. As per their claims, by the end of World War II, allegedly we were ethnic Bulgarians and after 1945, by a magical force of then President of Yugoslavia Tito, through some decree we were transformed into ethnic Macedonians; 
  • That the Macedonian language should be declared in our historical textbooks as a dialect of the Bulgarian language; 
  • To acknowledge that in the period 1941-1944 we were administered, not occupied, by Bulgaria. But as everybody knows, the Kingdom of Bulgaria was given occupation rights by Nazi Germany.

These demands are a blatant attempt for historical revisionism and have nothing do with EU criteria for membership. They are furthermore highly insulting for ethnic Macedonians. And to link this to the 60 percent support figure for EU accession I mentioned above, the support by ethnic Macedonians is considerably lower compared to the other ethnicities living in North Macedonia. We should think about the historical truth, in the first place about the emotions of the people, instead of pursuing these historical revisionist attempts.  

Can we say there is a cross-party consensus in North Macedonia concerning the country's Euro-Atlantic path?

This consensus held for three decades since our independence in 1991, but today it is only rhetoric. Parties in the opposition are saying they are rhetorically in favour of European integration. The Atlantic component has been fulfilled, as we joined NATO in 2020 – after having had to change the name of our country in 2018 (from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia). 

The opposition in 2020 was against changing the country's name; and today it is again against demands coming from Brussels (we are not even speaking about the demands coming from Bulgaria), which is to add to the preamble and text of our Constitution the small ethnic Bulgarian minority living in North Macedonia. I believe such a request to be benign, it will not weaken social cohesion. We already have seven people mentioned in the Constitution: Macedonian, Albanian, Turks, Bosniaks, Serbs, Vlachs and Roma. Now, we wish to include not only Bulgarians but also Montenegrins and Croatians, as we have a small minority of those in our territory. 

But the opposition is playing party politics, thinking of next year's parliamentary and presidential elections. But Macedonians are fed up with demands for constitutional change, waiting endlessly for almost two decades to start negotiations, which once started will take additional years if not over a decade. 

We have established a commission of experts, most of them legal and constitutional experts, under the auspices of the Justice Ministry. The amended text should be forwarded to the Parliament where we have a standing commission on constitutional issues. Alas, at present, there is no political will on part of opposition to support that. They are thinking about public standing and party ratings, not about the strategic goals of the country. This is of course legitimate from a political standpoint, but it is a pity to miss out this chance as well. Especially considering that we have now additional momentum deriving from the war in Ukraine. As a result, the EU has started to think more strategically than before concerning the Western Balkans. That is why in my opinion Bosnia Herzegovina was also granted candidate status last December, alongside Ukraine and Moldova.  

This year, North Macedonia holds the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At a time of unprecedented security challenges, what is North Macedonia's agenda to advance peace, security and prosperity across the OSCE space? 

On top of the OSCE agenda of course is the war in Ukraine, which his taking all energy and resources of the OSCE Member States. Additional problems in the past two-three years relate to the fact that Russians have been blocking the budget of the OSCE, which is under temporary financing. Russia has also been blocking the appointment of key positions in the organisation. They are doing everything possible to hamper the activities of the organization. And it is in this difficult environment that we are presiding the organisation. 

Nevertheless, our Foreign Ministry, alongside the OSCE Troika (which includes Poland and Sweden) are doing a great job, in trying to get together the warring factions. It is of course difficult for a small country to succeed in such endeavour but at least we are trying to establish some contacts. Overall, the OSCE has not been so productive in bringing Ukraine and Russia closer, but there are some movements in a positive direction in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We have established initial contacts with both sides concerning the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, eventually aiming to bring both sides not only to Vienna (OSCE headquarters) but why not in the future to Ohrid. 

Just two two months ago we hosted the latest High-Level Meeting of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue in Ohrid. Ohrid therefore has a long tradition in bringing forward good agreements such as the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement between the government of Macedonia and representatives of the Albanian minority, which among many other things paved the way for Albanians to participate in state institutions. As a country, we are known to be able to make compromises with our neighbours and also domestically, in order to strengthen our internal cohesion. I can proudly say that we have the only functional model of multi-ethnic democracy in the region, with all the difficulties it entails;

How can OSCE contribute to accelerate North Macedonia's domestic reform agenda?

I used to work for two previous Macedonian presidents so I have been to Brussels on a number of occasions and for various reasons, but I have always come here to the headquarters of either the EU or NATO. Now, after 14 years, we have again a presidential visit from North Macedonia to Belgium. 

The delegation includes our Minister of Economy Kreshnik Bekteshi and the head of the Directorate for Technological Industrial Development Zones, Jovan Despotovski; to boost the bilateral economic relationship. Belgium has been for many years in the top 10 countries with which we had the highest volume of trade exchanges; now they have dropped to the top 15, mainly as a consequence of the pandemic. We are making efforts to get Belgium back into our top 10.

Belgium is a very important country for us. From the economic standpoint, as it is a strong economy; and because of the large Macedonian diaspora here, tens of thousands of them. It is important to tap into the leverage they provide, in order to have a better economic relationship with Belgium. 

It is important for North Macedonia, as a small country with a huge rate of emigration, not only to Belgium, to raise the standards of living and improve the state of the economy. This is one of the reasons why young, bright people keep leaving North Macedonia in very high numbers. In 2021, we held a census after many years not having one (since 2002). It shows that in the past two decades, the population of North Macedonia has dropped 10 percent. A similar situation is occurring throughout the Western Balkans: Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro… There are some statistics saying that in the 1990s, when the string of wars happened in the Balkans after the fall of Yugoslavia, the number of people leaving at that time is quite similar to the number of people leaving the region today.

People cannot wait eternally to become a member of the EU, which is in the first place perceived everywhere as a wealthy economic club. Being so long in the waiting room, not only for North Macedonia but for all of the Western Balkans, has devastating effects on the enthusiasm of the people and the will to stay in their countries, to prosper where they are born. 

As I said, the rate of emigration is extremely high, and enthusiasm for the EU in each of these countries is declining, with the exception of Albania. Making painful, tough compromises (changing the name of our country and amending our Constitution, as I explained above) and at the same time not progressing and continuing in our path of EU integration, is something very difficult to explain to our citizens.

I give you two other examples from the region: Montenegro and Serbia, both of which have been negotiating for a decade, and they are also hardly progressing. I am not saying that Brussels is exclusively to be blamed for that. The internal reform agenda in these countries also contributes. But in my view, what was lacking in the past was a strategic vision on the part of the EU to embrace the Western Balkan countries. 

The attention of the EU has only been focused on our region during the big migration crisis of 2015-2016, when the Balkan Route was one of the main migratory paths into Europe; and now again in the context of the war in Ukraine. So I am a bit reserved when trying to judge the prospects or forecast for the future. If the war in Ukraine was the main driving force for the renewed attention of the EU towards the Western Balkans, what will happen when the war is over one day? For the record, I hope this will happen today, not tomorrow, of course. But do we need a war in our continent in order to trigger the EU's strategic vision? Do we need a war to erupt in order for the Western Balkans to finally become institutionally part of the EU? 

The EU, in the last year or so, is starting to emulate NATO in its geopolitical thinking. But NATO is of course a military-political organisation; the EU should be based on a different set of criteria, not waiting for some security threats to emerge in the continent to trigger strategic attention towards Western Balkans. I am afraid that when the war is over in Ukraine, maybe (and it is a big if), the EU will turn to business as usual, which means speaking for months about the so-called long-term financial prospective of the budgets of the EU, instead of about the countries waiting to be accepted. Since 2005, we have made a series of good reforms in North Macedonia, we are maybe not there yet, but there are positive changes in this direction. 

If Brussels sees accession as a merit-based process, ticking the boxes, and threatening to freeze accession due to lack of reforms, then we are OK with that. But for many years the EU has said nothing, good or bad, to the region as a whole, and now we are seeing the negative effects of that. I always say that the biggest threat to our national security is demographics. When the young people that should be the dynamic force of our economy, decide to leave permanently, then this does not bode well for the future of our country.