Macedonia: Catching the train

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Macedonia is likely to officially become an EU candidate in December. But is the country ready for the demands of membership, queries Biljana Stavrova in Transitions Online.

Macedonia has cleared a huge hurdle on its journey to the EU after the European Commission recommended that the EU Council of Ministers grant it candidate status. The Council, the EU’s main decision-making body, will meet on 15 December and is expected to follow the Commission’s unanimous recommendation.

This would open the door to full membership for Macedonia just a few years after the country was on the brink of civil war. 

The Commission’s positive opinion, announced on 9 November, came in a 142-page assessment of Macedonia’s progress against political and economic criteria and its readiness to meet the obligations of EU membership. The document includes a long and detailed list of recommendations for improvements that need to be made before actual membership talks could start.

A time for celebration…

Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski and Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva responded to the good news by dancing the night away at a Skopje discotheque. More remarkably, Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union of Integration (BDI) and a partner in the governing coalition, delivered his statement not in Albanian but in good Macedonian – for the very first time in his political career. 

In 2001, Ahmeti led an armed rebellion against government forces.

“We got a one-way ticket,” Prime Minister Buckovski said, promising that Macedonia would work hard to fulfil all criteria and asking for an all-party consensus on integration.

“Now is the time to mobilize all our potentials and to create a most precious heritage for the next generations,” Buckovski said.

That sentiment was shared by Risto Penov, leader of the Liberal Democrats (LDP), the third coalition party. “This is a historical achievement equal to [Macedonia gaining] independence [from Yugoslavia],” Penov said.

Political analysts and opposition parties were more less carried away.

“We have moved from being a patient country to being a candidate country,” noted Hristo Ivanovski, a political commentator with the daily Dnevnik. “But this is also the first time that the Europe revealed Macedonia’s dirty laundry, laundry that the media and the independent public have talked about all these years. It is all there, line by line, in the recommendations.”

The opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) welcomed the Commission’s opinion but blamed the government for failing to get a firm start date for negotiations, which the party’s secretary general, Gordana Jankulovska, attributed to the government’s propensity for stuffing the administration with its cronies and abusing the judiciary and to its failure to ensure the fairness of general and presidential elections. 

The wider importance of the Commission’s recommendation – or avis – was confirmed by the reaction from some international players. Erhard Busek, the coordinator of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, said the prospect of EU membership was “a driving force for the necessary reforms.” Richard Holbrooke, the top U.S. official for the Balkans during the presidency of Bill Clinton, said that “the integration of the Balkans states into the EU is a historical necessity” that would spread “freedom and democracy eastwards.” He also pointed to the economic benefits this would bring to these countries.

Catching the right train

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn travelled to Macedonia to personally deliver the Commission’s opinion and outline the Commission’s expectations of Skopje. During his visit, Rehn attended a cabinet meeting, addressed the parliament, and held a series of meetings with political parties and President Branko Crvenkovski.

On his arrival on 10 November Rehn was cheerfully welcomed by a group called European Youth, whose activists released thousands of balloons in EU colors.

But Rehn did not succumb to the local euphoria. His main point at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Buckovski was that Macedonia had done a lot but still needed to do more. He made it clear that negotiations would begin only once the country had fulfilled the criteria for membership.

“The prime minister said you got a one-way ticket for the EU. The next step is to choose the right path and to pump enough fuel for the trip,” Commissioner Rehn said, taking up the metaphor Buckovski had used the previous day.

“The implementation of the reforms is in your hands, whether you choose the fast-moving Eurostar or some slow local train,” Rehn told reporters.

In his speech to parliament, Rehn said that all the recommendations given in the opinion were important but that emerging priorities included fair elections, a more effective fight against corruption and organized crime, police reform, the creation of an efficient judiciary, and economic growth.

To read the article in full, visit the Transitions Online website.

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