Burned by Bulgaria veto, North Macedonia to ‘act more carefully’ on EU integration narrative, justice minister says

Bojan Marichikj, Minister of Justice, North Macedonia. [Justice Ministry, North Macedonia]

Partially attributing his party’s crushing defeat in the recent municipal elections to the stalling EU accession negotiations, North Macedonia’s justice minister Bojan Marichikj told EURACTIV the government in Skopje would be more careful in the future.

The stand-off between Bulgaria and North Macedonia started in autumn 2020 after Sofia refused to give its blessing for Skopje to start formal EU accession negotiations, citing ongoing arguments over language and shared history.

Since then, absent a stable government in Sofia, the process of joining the bloc for North Macedonia and Albania, whose progress has so far been linked with Skopje’s, has ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and leader Zoran Zaev have suffered a significant defeat in the municipal elections, with main opposition centre-right VMRO-DPMN gaining ground.

Zaev has since promised to step down.

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Even though a stable government finally seems within reach in Bulgaria, its first steps are unlikely to focus on the veto, rather the ongoing COVID crisis and corruption.

Bulgaria’s EU Ambassador Rumen Aleksandrov confirmed on Thursday (26 November) that Sofia will not lift veto yet, and given the circumstances, Albania should be uncoupled from North Macedonia and assessed independently based on its own progress.

According to North Macedonia’s Justice Minister Bojan Marichikj, “the disappointment of the citizens with the situation with the European integration and not starting the negotiations on time” was one of the contributing factors to his party’s loss.

“We have put a lot of effort as a government, and as a society to get back on European track” since this executive took office in 2017, he said, “and we have done a lot in terms of reforms”.

“And I think all of that wasn’t enough for, for the European Union to open the negotiations”, the minister said.

“We appreciate a lot the support that we are getting from all the EU member states. However, we would appreciate even more than we would expect European Union to deliver on starting the negotiations,” he added.

A recent poll by the Institute for Political Research from Skopje (IPIS) from 19-21 November found the opposition VMRO-DPMNE now had the most significant support with 22,5%. SDSM came second with 17,5%.

He pledged that his party’s focus would be keeping the majority in the parliament, the COVID crisis and its economic implications, the energy crisis, and the European integration process.

Asked if it was a mistake to put all the eggs in the metaphorical EU basket, Marichikj said: “I don’t think it was a mistake to trust the European Union and to actually try to put our society back on the European track.”

“But we should maybe have a look and maybe act more carefully in the upcoming period, in order not to be in the same position,” he added.

Marichikj said his government still expects the EU to deliver, which would affect the entire region.

Starting negotiations with Skopje, in his view, would “valorise this approach of supporting the European narrative, European policies and European way of resolving issues is the way to go for the other countries in the Western Balkans”.

Pressed whether his government would place less weight on the EU narrative from now on, he said: “it will depend on the dynamics on the European side”.

Pledging to nevertheless press on with reforms, Marichikj said, “it’s not either-or, we’re going to do both.”

“But we expect for the sake of the perspective of the country and for the sake of the driving force for reforms to have the negotiations started.”

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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