Füle heads to Macedonia ‘at critical juncture’

Opposition protest in Skopje.jpg

One week after warning that Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic path was “threatened”, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle is in Skopje today (1 March), in an effort to defuse tensions between the government and the opposition that have been growing since last December.

The announcement of Füle’s trip came as a surprise. The commissioner had previously canceled a visit in the framework of the so-called “High Level Accession Dialogue” (HLAD).

This form of contacts has been put in place by the European Commission largely as a palliative to the accession negotiations. Macedonia has candidate status since December 2005, but has been unable to start accession talks due to the so-called ‘name dispute’ with Greece (see background).

>> Read: 'Frustrated' Füle cancels visit to Macedonia

On 22 February, Füle was quoted by his spokesperson Peter Stano, saying that “the Euro-Atlantic path of the country is threatened”.

Diplomats told EURACTIV that such language has never been used with a candidate country, except with Slovakia under nationalist Prime Minister Vladimír Me?iar back in 2002.

Tensions have been growing in Macedonia since 24 December, when opposition MPs tried to block the parliamentary debate on the 2013 budget and were expelled from the chamber.

>> Read: Macedonian opposition: EU ignores democratic backslide

This time, it appears that Füle decided to travel to Skopje with a mandate to help defuse the crisis, rather than in the context of the accession process. EU sources told EURACTIV the visit was “very important”.

On Tuesday, the Heads of Mission of the European Union, the OSCE, and the United States released a statement, stating that “this country is currently at a critical juncture”.

Since December, Macedonia's main opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) have been boycotting parliament and calling for early elections. Conversely, the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (affiliated to the centre-right European People’s Party EPP) has been pressing for holding local elections on 24 March.

On Wednesday SDSM decided to boycott the local elections, in the absence of an agreement to hold early parliamentary elections. Normal elections should be held in 2015.

On the same day, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee took the unusual step to postpone the vote on its resolution regarding the 2012 progress report on Macedonia. It was explained that move was aimed at leaving the chance for the politicians in the country to find a way out of the stalemate.

The European Parliament’s Rapporteur for Macedonia MEP Richard Howitt (S&D, UK) and the former Parliament President MEP Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland) will both accompany Füle in Skopje.

Speaking to EURACTIV yesterday, Howitt said that the aspirations of the country’s citizens for a better future, as well as the country's political stability, were jeopardized by the current crisis.

“There must be a move away from public ultimatums, fixed positions and short term tactics towards direct dialogue and compromise in the best interest of the citizens and the country. We urge in this respect all political leaders to take responsibility and without further delay find a definitive solution to the current political crisis,” Howitt said.

It can only be guessed what kind of message Füle could deliver to the Macedonian government and opposition.

In June 2011, in the context of a crackdown on independent media and of a government campaign to erect monuments seen by Greece as provocative, Füle warned Macedonia that the country could lose the Commission’s recommendation to start accession negotiations.

>> Read: Füle shows Macedonia yellow card

The international community is watching at the situation in Macedonia with utmost concern. The country is an ethnic mosaic, with over 25% of ethnic Albanian population. Between February and August 2011 a conflict took place between the government and ethnic Albanian insurgents, mostly in the north and west of the country. The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the hostilities, but sporadic tensions have been visible ever since. 

Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the infamous 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest one (see EURACTIV's LinksDossier on 'EU-Macedonia relations').

Greece is pressing Macedonia to change its name because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. In addition, Athens considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. 

Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its medieval history and from its 19th and early 20th Century struggle against Ottoman domination. 

Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name by all EU countries except Greece, the name dispute has led to an impasse in the country's membership of both the EU and NATO.

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