Spotlight European Integration – It is time for the first EU/North Macedonia Intergovernmental Conference

Blog Post by Emil Kirjas, Founder of Kirjas Global, Vice President of Liberal International
Spotlight European integration blogpost series tracks the progress of EU enlargement with a liberal perspective, looking at Europe’s future.

Exactly a year ago, following the European Council of October 17-18 2019, the French veto over the start of EU accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania sent shockwaves throughout the Western Balkans. It caused the Macedonian government to collapse and early elections to be called. Brussels and the European capitals didn’t waste time, aware that the position of the Western Balkans does not allow space for open geopolitical competition with the powers that are anything but sympathetic or supportive to the values on which the European Union is founded. Russia, Turkey and China have already been making their presence in the region visible. At the same time, the Gulf rival blocks led by Iran and Saudi Arabia have geopolitical interests in the Balkans as well.

Green light for the accession process

After months of intense negotiations, the Commission proposed a new Enlargement methodology taking into consideration the current concerns, opening the door in March 2020 for the accession talks with Skopje and Tirana. The green light was given for an accession process based on a phased methodology that for the first time is reversible in case acceding countries backtrack in their progress towards full adoption not only of the EU legislation but also of the EU values and standards.

In parallel with the Council deliberations, the election process was ongoing in North Macedonia. It was the corona crisis that interfered with the election calendar, postponing the vote just a few short weeks ahead of the planned vote in mid-April. After three months of delays, finally, the Macedonian citizens were able to cast their ballot on 15 July. With a turnout of just over 50%, they decided to give a renewed mandate to the governing coalition, creating high-hopes for the EU integration process. The narrow majority of 62 out of 120 MPs voted at the end of August for the new-old cabinet. While we could see some familiar faces, it has seen a reduction both in the number of ministers as well as parties that have ministerial posts. Apart from the Social Democrats led by Zoran Zaev, who returned as a Prime Minister, the cabinet includes the ethnic Albanian parties DUI and BESA, as well as the ALDE Party member – LDP. Today, in the south of Europe, apart from Andorra, North Macedonia is the only country where the liberals participate in the government with a Minister and full control over a ministry. It is a great responsibility, which provides an opportunity for the liberals to play an essential role in the negotiations on the EU enlargement; both from the side of Brussels and of Skopje.

The tasks ahead in Skopje

The task ahead for the authorities in Skopje is anything but easy. The government has set up an ambitious plan aimed at EU membership. It envisages a government overhaul that would lead towards the reduction of the national institutions and top political appointments, as well as the downsizing of the overcrowded and inefficient public administration. That process is to be coupled with reform of the judiciary to ensure that the partisan influence that was built over the last three decades is diminished. It would include the possible reviewing of some judicial appointments and cases, with the help of the European Union.

These two processes are perhaps essential elements upon which the new government will be judged both by its citizens as well as by Brussels. After three decades of independence, according to Transparency International, Macedonians have low trust in the institutions, believe that corruption is high and that the judiciary does not provide equal justice to all. EU annual reports conclude the same, while noting the positive progress and tendencies over the last three years.

Clear principles: rule of law and democratic governance

The EU’s  ambition is clear – the principles of the rule of law and democratic governance must be irreversibly entrenched in the acceding countries. Negative examples, such as the current debates over the tendencies in Hungary and Poland, must be avoided in the future. There is a consensus about that among the liberals both in the EU and North Macedonia. That is why the rule of law is at the heart of the new EU Enlargement methodology. Unlike in the past, the rule of law and democratic institutions will remain under increased scrutiny from the EU from the start of the accession negotiations until the very end. For the first time, in addition to the Commission involvement, interested governments of EU member states will be able to play a direct role in the EU scrutiny. This is both an opportunity and a threat to the whole process. It makes the scrutiny more inclusive and transparent. On the other hand, it makes it more vulnerable to political influences based on national electoral tendencies.

While North Macedonia is perhaps more prepared for membership than the other countries in the region, the nation will also have to deliver tough reforms to ensure media freedom, environmental protection, decentralisation of power, as well as implementing the recently established friendship agreements with Greece and with Bulgaria. The challenges are massive, but achievable if national and European efforts are united. The future generations of Macedonians and Europeans will not forgive the political leadership in Skopje, Sofia, Berlin, Brussels and other EU capitals if this chance is missed and if the opportunity is handed to other geopolitical players in the region. That is why it is of utmost importance that the first Inter-Governmental Conference takes place by the end of 2020, as the German presidency has committed to. All eyes are now on the Council decisions of November and December when the talks should officially begin.