North Macedonia’s Sekerinska: Postponing decisions is not the best policy

North Macedonia Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska on 17 September 2018. [Georgi Licovski/EPA/EFE]

North Macedonia has done its part in removing the obstacles on its road to EU accession, but the EU has been slow to follow suit, North Macedonia’s Defence Minister Radmila Šekerinska told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Radmila Šekerinska is the defence minister of North Macedonia. During her term as a deputy prime minister responsible for European Affairs, the European Council granted the country EU candidate status in December 2005. 

She spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski on the sidelines of the Brussels Forum.

It was quite a heavy blow last week as EU ministers decided not to open accession talks just yet. How do you see the lack of EU consensus?

Divided Europe deals major blow to North Macedonia's EU accession hopes

An EU ministerial meeting on Tuesday (18 June) ended up as a major disappointment for North Macedonia, which had nurtured hopes that its historic agreement with Greece  on the country’s name would be rewarded with an EU accession ticket.

If we are technically correct, EU ministers decided to revisit the question in a few months. What was unanimously expressed was that there is no real argument to deny North Macedonia the start of accession talks.

Last year, the list of expectations from the EU side was rather long and maybe many believed that we won’t be able to deliver in such a short period of time, having in mind the difficult political agenda, as all domestic reforms had to go in parallel with negotiations with Greece, a referendum and constitutional changes.

But we have managed to be successful and this is why even the most critical assessors of progress had to agree that we have done our share. Unfortunately, there is now a delay in the EU’s delivery.

I don’t believe three months can change events. But postponing decisions, when the situation is relatively clear, is not the best policy. We will continue to perform, but we do believe that also the credibility of the offer, of the process, and the credibility of the EU as a regional and global actor, is at stake.

Would you have preferred if a distinction had been made between North Macedonia and Albania?

Our wish focused on our goals. They are, since 1992, to join the EU. Our wish since 2005, when we became a candidate country, was to start accession talks. We have waited and wasted a lot of time in the last 14 years. But in the last two years, we have shown that we are making up for the lost time. We were both patient and efficient and we believe that we all agreed – EU and us – that we have earned the start of the accession talks.

When we look at the Greek domestic situation, do you fear that a New Democracy government could potentially revoke the Prespa Agreement [on the name change]?

There were several very clear statements on behalf of New Democracy that they might dislike the agreement, but that they will respect it. But this goes beyond the mere obligations or the content of the agreement. The real question is what kind of a region do we all want for our countries? I am a firm believer that the Prespa Agreement significance was not just NATO and EU – it was new content, a new approach in our bilateral relations.

I do hope that future Greek governments, whatever composition they may have, will continue to create conditions for a more European Balkan, a more rational Balkan, a Balkan more open towards neighbours, and in that case, a more prosperous Balkan. This is not only in our interest, but should be also Greek interest to position itself with a stronger foot in the Balkans economically, politically and financially.

Have you been in touch with someone from the Greek opposition or did you get any guarantees?

We haven’t had a formal meeting. We have only listened very carefully to the public statements. We ran a campaign in 2016 that our words count and as a government, we stick to this rule that when you commit to something you have to deliver and hope that all our neighbours and the EU will follow.

Speaking of neighbourly relations. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov has warned against “anti-Bulgarian rhetoric” regarding a joint commission for history. How would you comment on that?

Borissov warns North Macedonia against stealing Bulgarian history

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov warned EU hopeful North Macedonia on Thursday (20 June) against what he said was “anti-Bulgarian rhetoric” and appropriation of Bulgaria’s history as its own, saying it “must stop”.

The initial courage for the breakthrough with Greece was created also because we were successful in reaching an agreement with Bulgaria – after a decade of standstill. It required courage from both governments and both prime ministers. The Bulgarian government and prime minister have managed to show that presiding over the EU is not only about having nice logos but about also having a different kind of responsibility towards the region. We saw this as the first signal that the region is changing.

There will be challenges along the way, but I do believe that at least from our side, the joint commission that was created really wants to break the habit of seeing history as the enemy of all or looking at history with the view of finding ammunition against your neighbours.

The issues are not connected, but in a way, they tell the same story: Have we learned from our mistakes, are we capable of moving forward? And I do believe that the two countries and the two governments will again seize the opportunity to show that they have.

Skopje held joint government sessions with close to every country in the region, but Serbia was the one visibly missing…

We have re-engaged with all of our neighbours. When you are freshly elected, you have the courage, energy and political capital to break the status quo. In spite of issues, in spite of open problems, we tried to create a different dynamic than there was and I think it has worked. We have all our borders confirmed with bilateral agreements.

We have the same initiative to have a joint session with Serbia. However, the question was always the appropriate timing, having in mind our and their elections. But as an example of our political will our prime minister was just recently present in the opening of the “Corridor 10” construction in Serbia as a signal that we do not make any difference between the neighbours. We want good relations with all of them. And there was also a positive signal from Belgrade, Serbia’s president was presented at the inauguration of our president.

Sometimes one gets the impression that Serbia would relish a setback when it comes to North Macedonia’s NATO accession. Do you see a problem in regards to NATO’s ‘strategic hole’ in the Balkans?

One of the policies that has worked in the past and now is that you will agree to disagree on certain issues. We have struggled very hard especially in the last four, five years to explain to everyone that we want to have good relations with everyone. But the strategic choices about where our country will stand are ours to make. And we have made this strategic choice with regards to NATO in 1993, it had nothing to do with the present geostrategic rifts and geostrategic differences.

This was one of the few constants throughout our independence. Governments have changed, parliaments have changed – there was no single government or even a significant parliamentary group that has ever opposed NATO membership. So if we want this right for ourselves, we have to accept that right for our neighbours. Of course, we will always have more defence cooperation with some of our NATO allies. The choice of Serbia is a choice for their citizens and their elected officials.

You’ve been knocking on NATO’s door for quite some time. Did you receive guarantees accession could be rubber-stamped at the London summit?

North Macedonia takes big step toward NATO accession at London summit

NATO signed the accession protocol with North Macedonia on Wednesday (6 February). The military alliance also decided to hold a summit in London in December, when North Macedonia could officially join the alliance.

There are no guarantees in politics, especially when too many parliaments are concerned. But we have signed the accession treaty at the beginning of February and in the first five months after the signing of the Accession Treaty, we have seen 17 ratifications. Albania and Montenegro, the latest newcomers, had seven and eight ratifications in the same time period. There is a political will and I would say even a political urge, not only by us but by many who have watched what was happening in North Macedonia and they have been surprised, by the progress. All these are signals, but it ain’t over until it’s over.

We believe, and this is what many NATO officials have said, symbols are nice and positive stories are good – to have the 30th member of the Alliance on the 70th anniversary could show the dynamism and the ambition that the Alliance has.

Will we see more cooperation between North Macedonia and Greece on security?

Yes. In several areas. For example, North Macedonia doesn’t have the capabilities to serve our air policing needs. And what countries like ours do is turn to their neighbours and look for arrangements. This is one of the obligations that NATO has. You have to control your sky or your allies should do it on your behalf. The NATO principles of smart defence really work. Albania and Montenegro use Greece and Italy. We have discussed this with NATO and Greece and they have offered these services to us, as well. We are also discussing it with Bulgaria. If it was not for Greece’s early elections, we would probably already have had a signed agreement on air policing with Greece.

Greece will police North Macedonia’s airspace following historic visit

Greece and North Macedonia signed a number of crucial agreements to enhance their economic and military collaboration following a historic visit of Greek premier Alexis Tsipras to Skopje.

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