North Macedonia president: We need date for EU talks before autumn

North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski (L) is welcomed by European Council President Donald Tusk (R) in Brussels, Belgium on 12 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Decoupling North Macedonia and Albania’s EU path, by giving the green light to the former and holding the start of accession talks for the latter is not great, but is the only way forward, North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview during his visit to Brussels on Thursday (13 June).

But Pendarovski also said the decision to open membership talks with Skopje could be delayed until September, as the German Bundestag is due to debate enlargement only after the summer recess. He voiced concern that this might be too late as the political context in the Balkans could change in the coming months and create new problems.

The 56-year old Pendarovski, in office since 12 May, is an ally of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who struck a historic deal with Greece on North Macedonia’s name, opening the door for the former Yugoslav republic to move towards NATO and EU membership.

However, while the country will join NATO either in December, “or in the first quarter next year, at the latest”, its EU prospects are still uncertain. EU leaders are supposed to say yes or no to a Commission recommendation to open the talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

“Before the elections, we, in the region, were afraid that Eurosceptics would surge, but it didn’t happen. A big majority of MEPs do not oppose enlargement,” Pendarovski said.

“The biggest problem now is the decoupling with Albania. Albania is now in disarray. The opposition has walked out of institutions and it’s getting tenser. So what can we say here? We have had positive recommendations from the Commission before, and we’ve been decoupled before.”

In 2011, Montenegro was given the go-ahead while North Macedonia was blocked because of a veto from Greece. In 2013, it was Serbia that opened the talks while Skopje was held back, despite a positive recommendation.

“In both cases, it was great news for the region that they opened the talks. But now we have done our homework, we have signed the agreement with Greece, which was a political miracle,” the president said.

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While Pendarovski toured Brussels, Prime Minister Zaev talked to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. “It was our last attempt to get a date in June or July. The problem is the Bundestag and its timetable. They have two sessions in September where they are to debate this.”

The interview was conducted before Zaev’s Berlin trip, during which he was told the Bundestag would indeed debate – and approve – North Macedonia’s bid in September.

“As regards North Macedonia, my information and estimates point out that the country
could receive the approval of my group in Parliament by the end of September. The first
chapters could be opened in December,” said Johann Waderphul, a CDU deputy in the Bundestag,  quoted by a Macedonian newspaper.

Pendarovski, however, said September was already a bit late and the country would much prefer June, July, or even August.

“Why do we say ‘now, not later’? Because no politician in Europe has any objection to our file. No one is saying ‘North Macedonia doesn’t deserve it’. No one. This being the case, and having had decoupling before, give us the date, please,” he said.

Greece is holding a parliamentary election on 7 July and the opposition New Democracy, “which could come to power, has a much more rigid position on the name deal, and if we postpone this for the autumn, they might have a much more rigid position on the date for our talks”.

Secondly, he warned of growing potential for tensions with another EU neighbour, Bulgaria, with whom Skopje signed an agreement on good neighbourly relations and agreed to set up a joint commission to work on disputed issues such as history, language or ethnicity.

But the commission has made little progress, which is being publicly criticised in Sofia, due to what Pendarovski said were increasingly nationalistic claims from Bulgaria. “There are forces there who say Bulgarians and Macedonians are one and the same people living in two countries and that’s a bit too much for us to accept.”

“So then instead of a technicality, we may have political problems again… But not getting the green light would be a very bad sign for all the pro-European forces in the region, even for the countries that are already negotiating,” he said.

* Felicia Cretu contributed to this report

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