By Misko Taleski
Macedonia will begin preliminary high-level talks with the EU, which are designed to reduce the length of formal negotiations that the nation would have should it be given a date for accession discussions.
EC President Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule agreed to the March 15th discussions with Macedonia’s leadership last year in Ohrid.
The EU delegation’s office in Skopje said the dialogue aims to maintain the course of institutional reforms in order to bring Macedonia closer to the EU.
“That is why Commissioner Fule is launching the dialogue with Prime Minister (Nikola) Gruevski — to focus on key reform challenges,” EU spokesperson Konstantin Jovanovski told SETimes.
Jovanovski said talks will focus on reforming Macedonia’s public administration, strengthening the rule of law, protecting the media’s freedom of expression, improving the election process and developing the market economy.
“Macedonia now receives a higher(-level) treatment and is one step ahead, despite being blocked by Greece,” Gruevski said.
Macedonia has been waiting three years to obtain an EU membership negotiation date. Greece blocked a planned invitation for Macedonia to join NATO in 2008, and in 2009 blocked EU accession talks over a lengthy name dispute.
Greece says the name “Macedonia” suggests a claim to the Greek province of the same name. Macedonia, which was admitted to the UN under the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” says changing its name would deny its national identity. More than 100 nations recognise it as “Republic of Macedonia.”
Under the terms of the dialogue mechanism, EU and Macedonian leaders will meet twice a year, but the dialogue will go on throughout the year. A progress report will be published in October.
“Given that bilateral disputes have slowed down or stalled EU accession, this dialogue is an impetus for similar mechanisms to be undertaken elsewhere,” Centre for Political Research analyst Vladimir Bozhinovski told SETimes.
Having dialogue on the highest level is no substitute for beginning formal membership negotiations, according to Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister for European Issues Teuta Arifi.
“The dialogue is the EU’s pro-active answer [in response to] the activities we have undertaken since the latest EC progress report,” Arifi said.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said however, the ICJ verdict in favour of Macedonia and the 1996 Macedonia-Greece interim accord provide a framework for Macedonia to continue the EU integration process.
Ivanov impressed this stance upon high EU officials — Richard Hewitt, Eduard Kukan, Lojze Peterle — during their meeting late last month.
“We should have this process in parallel with our discussions with Greece to find a solution to the name issue,” Ivanov’s foreign affairs adviser, Darko Kostadinovski, told SETimes.
Some analysts say dialogue mechanisms can overcome existing regional bilateral disputes and ease the candidates’ EU accession.
“In 1981, the European Parliament gave a negative decision for Greece’s EU membership, but because of political pressure, the country was admitted,” Bozhinovski said.
The other regional countries that aspire for EU membership have not yet announced EU accession negotiations, but analysts say bilateral disputes will be an issue in the process.
Belgrade and Pristina reached an agreement last month regarding Kosovo’s regional representation, which Brussels received very positively and provided Serbia with EU membership candidate status.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) will submit a membership application to the EU in July. The issues BiH faces are reforms-related but also related to relations with Serbia and Croatia regarding Republika Srpska and the position of Croats in BiH.