Diplomat: ‘Macedonia is a special case’

Macedonia's two ethnic communities, Macedonians and Albanians, need to agree on the future direction of the country, Agron Buxhaku, Macedonian ambassador to France, told EURACTIV France in an interview. The diplomat admits that if the EU is to maintain an open door to the Balkans, the candidate countries must work harder to democratise their own societies.

Agron Buxhaku is a politician from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), a Macedonian political party. He was a presidential candidate in 2009.

He was speaking to EURACTIV France's Clémentine Forissier and Clarisse Bargain.

In 2005, when the EU approved Macedonia's status as a candidate country for membership, the start of negotiations was envisaged for 2008. This became 2009, and then the Council talked about 2010. What are the reasons for these postponements?

There are several elements explaining this delay in the opening of negotiations. First and foremost, the EU has had internal problems.

But there have also been problems in Macedonia. Internally, the situation has not been great since the 2006 elections: the party that won in the Albanian area was not included in the government, which caused a political crisis and forced early elections in 2008.

Externally, we still have an unresolved problem with Greece concerning our country's name.

Looking at the wider context, the EU has grown from 13 to 15, 25 and now 27 members within 15 years. Despite the EU's success on a global level, it has experienced enlargement fatigue. There is a paradox: the more democratic EU decision-making becomes, the more complicated it gets. Before, when the leaders of the most powerful countries agreed on a policy, it went ahead. Then the public and media were informed. Today, it is necessary for all member states to democratise the decision-making process, slowing everything down.

But we have to be a bit more self-critical. There is a different level of democratisation in Slovenia and Macedonia, in Estonia and Montenegro. This is not always the EU's fault and a country must make the necessary reforms in order to join.

What do you think are the key reforms needed to speed up Macedonia's EU accession process?

Macedonia is a special case. The two ethnic communities need to agree on the future direction of the country. The Ohrid Accords of 2001, which created the basis for the organisation and integration of the minority populations, have been very effective.

But it is also necessary to make reforms that will establish the rule of law. Unlike certain other countries that have recently joined the EU, we do not really have a democratic tradition and we need to work hard to develop our institutions.

In your opinion, how can the disagreement with Greece over the name of the Republic of Macedonia be resolved? What role should the EU play in the dispute?

As an ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia, I will give you the official position. An acceptable name for the country has to be agreed but it must be one that does not harm the national identity of most Macedonian citizens.

I am of Albanian origin and when I was a candidate for the presidency of the republic, I proposed that the EU and the United States play a more prominent role in the naming dispute, as this has been going on for several years. While we appreciate the work of the United Nations, they are not well-known for their ability to solve problems.

We have reached a stage where Greece no longer opposes the use of the term 'Macedonia' as part of the country name to be agreed.

At the last European Council, Greece suggested that Macedonia's accession negotiations be put on hold. Should a naming resolution be a precondition of membership?

We would like to become a member of the EU as soon as possible, so anything that can be done to speed things up would be welcome. Clearly, the rules of the club must be respected. According to the EU's accession rules, all member states must agree before negotiations can begin. Secondly, all disputes and issues with neighbouring countries must be solved before each accession. This is good and is a positive way of putting pressure on countries to resolve their differences.

Are you confident that the European Council's decision on Macedonia's accession negotiations in March will be a positive one?

I am an optimist by nature. But sometimes one must be a realist to not be disappointed. When I was secretary of international relations in my political party, I had numerous contacts in Brussels. I always told them to keep an open perspective. But if the decision is negative, we have to keep motivation and positive signals. This has always been case and it is vital not to discourage the population. If we give up on this perspective, I fear that there will be problems.

Are the Macedonian people still in favour of accession to the EU?

I am a committed European. But I don not speak for the citizens. If we had the economic standards of Norway or Switzerland and this question was asked five years into the process, I am sure that the answer would be 'no'. But our standard of living and level of political development mean that, according to the surveys, 90% of the people are in favour of EU membership.

Paris has expressed reservations about Macedonia's candidate status. Last July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that France would support Macedonia's accession to the EU. Yet on 8 December, France's foreign affairs minister supported Greece and opposed the opening of negotiations. How do you view France's attitude since the start of Macedonia's membership process?

France has always been in favour of bringing Macedonia into the Union. Relations between the two countries are excellent. That said, from an economic point of view, we could improve the situation: France is not even among the top 20 economic partners of Macedonia.

There have been quite positive developments, particularly concerning the Albanians. France has effectively acted in the right way, even if it has come a bit late, in the former Yugoslavia.

A member state's decision to support or oppose an EU accession is an internal political matter. We cannot therefore do much about President Sarkozy's choice.

How was the EU's withdrawal of visas for Macedonian citizens viewed in your country?

I have been following the reactions of travel agencies in the press – they are disappointed as they were expecting many clients. The fear of a Balkan invasion of the 'paradise' of the West, as envisaged by certain far-right political parties, did not materialise. In fact, this had a positive impact: anything that helps the path towards accession gives the people encouragement.

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