ISSN 2330-717X

North Macedonia Puts On Brave Face Despite Expected Ambushes On Its EU Path

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By  Alexandra Brzozowski

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(EurActiv) — North Macedonia’s prime minister put on a brave face on Tuesday (19 July) at the official opening of his country’s long-delayed EU accession talks, as unrest grows at home and a nationalist movement threatens to upend the process.

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

“We also send a very powerful message to the whole region and even beyond that,” he added.

As a next step in the accession process, the European Commission is set to start a rigorous screening process of the candidate country’s legislation to see how well aligned it is with EU law, Varhelyi said.

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

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Mini-model of EU?

Kovačevski said his country was already “like little 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.”

In fact, the country was prey to an armed conflict between the Macedonian Army and police and the paramilitary Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), which the international community was able to extinguish with the Ohrid agreement of 2001.

The West, including the US, has been pushing for the start of Skopje’s EU accession talks, fearing that destabilisation would play in the hands of Russia.

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

The former VMRO-DPMNE leader, ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski is a close friend of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Gruevski was sentenced to jail for abuse of power but escaped justice and was given asylum in Hungary.

Despite the start of talks, the ruling government in Skopje faces a political minefield ahead.

Before starting to open chapters, North Macedonia needs to change its constitution by adding Bulgarians among its nation-building peoples. But the ruling coalition lacks the needed two-thirds majority so Tuesday’s opening of negotiations risks remaining a symbolic gesture, possibly triggering more political infighting and unrest.

Over the weekend, the country’s government announced it had reached a compromise with Bulgaria in a long-running dispute that had served as an effective roadblock to the onset of talks for EU membership.

“We have adopted a decision that helps preserve the Macedonian identity, language, culture and specific features of the EU accept us as Macedonians who speak the Macedonian language, fully respecting our identity features – this is ensured for good,” Kovačevski said after the talks.

“These are things that will never be negotiated.”

However, protests have been growing in recent weeks, with the opposition rallying thousands to fight back against any new compromises with Bulgaria and the EU.

Asked about the opposition toward the deal with Bulgaria, Kovačevski said the process went “through the most democratic and transparent procedure where all the stakeholders in the Macedonian society were involved from political parties, academia, media, NGOs, experts”.

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

Seeking to reassure Skopje, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told the IGC that “on your path to the EU, you will not lose your identity – none of us do”.

“Your identity will remain and it will be enriched by other identities which are not alternative, but complementary,” he said, adding that Skopje would not need the EU summit conclusion 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 designated as a candidate for EU membership nearly 20 years ago, while it already worked through big differences over its name 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 told the IGC conference.

“Alignment with the EU’s foreign policy and sanctions is not a technical exercise, and we do not take it for granted – it costs a lot, and it comes with a cost.”

“This is not a simple transaction of interests, but a relationship based on shared principles, values and goals,” he said. “Your full alignment shows clearly the strategic direction that you have chosen.”

The strategic importance of the Western Balkans to the EU has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine, with fears over Moscow’s influence in the region.

If North Macedonia and other Balkan countries remain outside the EU, the region will be a “soft spot” vulnerable to penetration by “malign powers”, including Russia, the country’s President Stevo Pendarovski told AFP.

But the longer they wait to join the bloc, the more anti-European voices gain traction and fan the flames of unrest.

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

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One thought on “North Macedonia Puts On Brave Face Despite Expected Ambushes On Its EU Path

  • July 20, 2022 at 7:00 am
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    “Your identity will remain and it will be enriched by other identities which are not alternative, but complementary,” he said.

    What does this mean, I wonder, given that the Bulgarian government do not recognise the Macedonian language or the Macedonian identity. I wonder if any other sovereign nation would accept this position, and submit to unreasonable demands and allow for hostile neighbours to rewrite their history. The EU proposal extinguishes the human rights of the Macedonian people and places the all the power in the hands of hostile neighbours, to commit ethnocide.

    This moment in history will be remembered for the silence from other EU members, who stood by and allowed for this crime to unfold.

    Reply

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