Macedonia’s feeble flame of aspiration

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

Richard Howitt MEP (UK, Labour) [European Parliament]

Richard Howitt MEP (UK, Labour) [European Parliament] [European Parliament]

Are European policy-makers crushing hopes of progress in Macedonia by putting enlargement on the back burner, Richard Howitt wonders. 

Richard Howitt is British Labour MEP and the Socialist and Democrat (S&D) Foreign Affairs spokesperson in the European Parliament.

How can you keep the flame of aspiration alight in a western Balkans country already feeling thwarted in its EU membership ambitions, when some suggest opinion in Brussels may have turned against EU enlargement altogether?

This is a country being entrenched in what risks becoming a further ‘frozen conflict,’ matching those of Central Europe, but existing within the external geographical borders of the European Union itself.

Above all, it is a country riddled with questions. Have those of us from the European Union wanted a European future for the country more than its people want it for themselves? Was a solution possible sometime in the country’s long-running name dispute with Greece? Does the local population really understand that there is no viable alternative for Europe? Could there still be a return to conflict between the country’s majority Macedonian and minority Albanian ethnic groups?

A review of the country’s historic Ohrid peace agreement has never been implemented, but it is perhaps the threat to the spirit rather than the letter of the agreement which is most important for the future. Meanwhile diplomatic contacts reveal that in practice a number of EU Member States have “walked away” from the country because of the apparently intractable nature of its problems. 

More than ever, progress has to be driven from within. Yet mounting evidence catalogued in the European Commission’s annual progress reports suggests only a mixed record in relation to reform efforts, ultimately aimed at meeting EU standards and requirements.

In particular, back-sliding in reforms on sensitive areas including freedom of expression have provided some of the biggest challenges in keeping accession prospects alive.

Bicycle at standstill

The process of EU enlargement really is represented by the bicycle which needs to be ridden forwards, to avoid the risk of falling off altogether. Nevertheless faith in the European Union within the country does require good faith from Europe itself in meeting its promises.

The impasse which has seen Skopje six times recommended for a start of accession talks only to be rebuffed on each occasion at the subsequent European Council, is hardly consistent with the EU’s Thessaloniki commitment towards membership for each and every one of the Western Balkans countries.

An apparent stalling of integration efforts between the country’s ethnic groupings is accompanied by growing concerns about the possibility of destabilising external interference in the Balkans in the light of the Ukraine crisis.

EU countries cannot be allowed to have a false complacency about the maintenance of political status quo in Skopje, and suddenly wake up to events which see our own strategic interests in the country and its wider region fatally compromised.

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was right to comment in relation to the country that Europe must not wait to focus until after conflict has arisen, but must show the intelligence to do so precisely in order to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Boycott mentality

The European Parliament can make a difference. Each year there have been large majorities, across the political spectrum, in favour of the start of the country’s EU accession talks.

Our own reputation for fairness and impartiality in an otherwise polarised political atmosphere within the country itself, enabled constructive criticisms to be made on very sensitive issues locally, including on the situation of Roma communities and on the rights of LGBT people.

In 2013, it was the European Parliament which took personal responsibility in negotiating an agreement to successfully end a domestic political crisis, which had seen opposition politicians evicted from the country’s parliament at gunpoint and then proceeding to engage in a long lasting and counter-productive parliamentary boycott. 

Nevertheless the boycott mentality has returned this year, with the political parties mired this time in disputes about alleged telephone taps and about electoral fairness.

This further breakdown of political dialogue questions once again whether the national interest can ever supercede  party interests, in order to secure the strategic interests parties themselves say that they want for their own country? 

Parliament-to-parliament efforts between Brussels and Skopje are playing a positive role.  But a more pluralistic media and civil society absent in the political culture of countries across the region, appear to be equally crucial in the necessary strengthening of this country’s democracy.

The diplomacy of EU enlargement appears to require an endless creativity. In the case of Skopje, that has involved finding innovative ideas which just might help to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. This has included the suggestion that the country be awarded “functioning market economy status;” or to be the subject of a report on the costs of non-enlargement.

One suggestion was for an early start to the ‘screening’ process, to allow ‘opening benchmarks’ to be officially set in relation to individual negotiating ‘chapters,’ even before the starting whistle has been sounded.

Recent discussion has also floated a proposal to reform the framework for resolving the name issue within the United Nations – a venue where all our countries are already fellow member states.

Countering controversies about nationalistic monuments and symbols, literal creativity could perhaps lead to the installation of some public artworks which commemorate peace, reconciliation and unity instead.

All these ideas remain on the table.

Tick a box

It is necessary to demonstrate real empathy for the feelings of local people. This was achieved for example by both adopting then persuading the European Commission to use as well the internationally acceptable adjective ‘Macedonian’ as a clear concession to genuine popular frustration over use of the name.

But in the end, EU enlargement can be achieved only by winning the argument that the future is more important than the past. We have to be prepared to expose the shortfalls within ones own country and in its own European journey. Self-criticism and mutual learning are the indispensible tools to avoid any sense of the EU trying to affect change in a country by ‘preaching’ from a position of supposed superiority.

Above all, we have to be a critical friend within the country and an advocate for the country’s European future outside of it. 

In Brussels, all we are talking about is starting talks with this country – not concluding them. My own fourteen year old daughter once suggested: Why don’t you just draw up a sheet of paper, saying “I agree to all the terms and conditions of the European Union,” get them to tick a box at the bottom, sign it and then they can join tomorrow?!

If only it was as easy as that.

This commentary is based on a speech by Richard Howitt MEP as outgoing rapporteur for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Read the full speech here.

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