Macedonia PM Zaev: We want to finish with problems once and forever

EXCLUSIVE / Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev recounts one of the most extraordinary political developments in recent times: the agreement with Greece on the long-standing name dispute that has blocked NATO membership and the start of EU accession talks.

Zoran Zaev has been prime minister of his country since May 2017. He spoke to EURACTIV’s senior editor, Georgi Gotev.

I am really glad to be your guest. We have indeed become a big thing in the media, not only in the Balkans, in South-East Europe, but in the whole of Europe. I thank you for the nice words you said about me. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m a left-wing politician, just as Alexis Tsipras, that we succeeded in reaching such an agreement. But we had a similar agreement before with Bulgaria, although the prime minister there is right-wing.  So what is common among us is obviously believing in the European future, this wish, this love of Europe, which dominates our characters and our thoughts, and then the nationalist thoughts, which probably exist everywhere, take the back seat, and the pro-European thoughts take precedence. We want to be united in Europe because, at the end of the day, this is what young people are expecting from us.

I mentioned Macron. But it’s precisely him who is not in a hurry to pursue enlargement. What do you think?

French President Macron, who is a great pro-European politician, has probably taken this stance because of the internal debates in France, and I know something about internal debates. I am aware of how his opponent Marine Le Pen uses these debates to her advantage, he is convinced that Europe needs to reform, and also become more attractive to us, as candidate countries for EU membership. In Sofia, at the Western Balkans summit, I talked to President Macron. I reminded him that Macedonia has been a candidate country since 2005. The Commission recommended starting accession negotiations in 2009. I told him: “Let Europe reform in parallel and we can even help you, by giving the example of European ways to find solutions to problems. And Macedonia can start accession negotiations at the same time”.

We are not asking to immediately become EU members. We would like to be given the chance to conduct negotiations for full membership in the EU, remembering that there were countries that conducted accession negotiations but didn’t become EU members, such as the Nordic countries.  But in this respect, President Macron probably could not stay unmoved by the big solution we found between Macedonia and Greece, which overcomes the identity divisions and finds the solution by recognising Macedonian people with Hellenic ancestry and Macedonian people without Hellenic ancestry.

And besides, to make a distinction based on the facts in geographical terms, we are the northern part of that historic Macedonia, Bulgaria has the eastern part, Greece has the southern part, and even Albania has a part of it. That’s a fact. I know how difficult the solution is, it’s difficult for me, it’s difficult for my people, but the European aspiration and our duty towards future generations is too great.

I wonder, was this compromise good? Your country will not start accession negotiations immediately but only next year, after the European elections. Was it a good compromise, or…

For us, it’s not something new or something different, if you are aware of the following facts: Montenegro started accession talks seven and a half months after the decision of the European Council. Serbia started negotiations nine months and a half after the summit decision. In our case, it will be 12 months. But we are aware that there will be European elections. Some time will be lost there. And we have a referendum in Macedonia, as part of the implementation of our agreement with Greece, and we are aware that there will be a screening process, and time for drafting the negotiations framework. I think this has been carefully calculated so that we will be well prepared from June 2019 to start opening accession chapters.

But the opposition is likely to make it difficult for you, the VMRO-DPMNE party doesn’t like the agreement…

There is no clear agreement among the opposition. They are against changing the constitution, but they say they are for NATO and EU accession. There is therefore a contradiction. If we are for NATO and the EU, we should be ready to compromise. In the beginning, I also wished that there would be no need to change the constitution. But with the power of arguments during the talks, it became clear that such a position would create new problems.

We want to finish with problems once and forever. So that we could build friendly relations and conclude agreements for the benefit of our two countries, and of our two peoples, and this is why the compromise was made. Greece got the name erga omnes, we got erga omnes identity. At the same time, the identity of Macedonians living in Greece is guaranteed, this is clearly set.

And in this respect, I’m satisfied that we have a fair and legally sound decision.  Which gives the chance to today’s politicians, and to their successors, and to the future generations, to cooperate through good relations.

Do you hope that the European Peoples’ Party will show more understanding for your positions? Let’s be frank, they are trying to help Gruevski…

The centre-right EPP party is close to its sister parties, and I can understand that. But there is another aspect, it’s about the European spirit, and I speak and find understanding with many of their representatives, with Boyko Borissov and other prime ministers and high officials, who are for the agreement and for the speedy integration of Macedonia in NATO and in the EU. I believe they do everything they can to encourage the centre-right parties in Macedonia and in Greece.

Those centre-right parties in Macedonia and in Greece are very similar: they both make noise, organise protests, they use bad language, the same in Greece as in Macedonia, the same tactics. But if you ask them in Greece ‘do you want to have friendly relations with your northern neighbour?’, they say yes, When you ask them if a solution is needed, they say yes. And in Macedonia, when you ask them, they say we need good relations with Greece, and they say NATO and the EU are strategic goals. But how would this be possible without an agreement? Anyway, it’s sometimes the job of the opposition to be so critical, but I believe that there is no other way to achieve the goals of NATO and EU membership, this is happening now, and I’m convinced that common sense, the love of the homeland, and the outlook for Macedonia, will prevail over the opposition.

 We are talking just as the EU summit ended, and it was a difficult one. How does the EU look to you? Aren’t there too many divisions and conflicts?

This is why I’m saying that when we are in, we will help them…

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