Interveiw of MFA Nikola Poposki for Handelsblatt

Date: 1 March 2016

Journalist: Hans-Peter Siebenhaar

 

“Turkey plays a key role”

Macedonian Foreign Minister supports the Chancellor’s search for a European solution.

handelsblatt

Nikola Poposki belongs to the new generation of politicians in the Balkans. The 38-year-old Foreign Minister of Macedonia – five years in office – is pragmatic and pro-European. But the challenges for his country, a bottleneck on the Balkans route, are huge.

Mister Poposki, how do you describe the refugee issue in Macedonia at the moment?

Last year, 700,000 refugees passed through our country. Since the beginning of this year, our border was crossed by 90,000 migrants. Handling these masses on our border poses a huge challenge for us.

What is the solution to this problem?

Two objectives should be implemented: prevent illegal border crossings the number of which used to be massive; and establish registration centres in Greece where all refugees will be registered and where it will be determined who can or cannot continue their journey. Illegal migrants must be sent back. Recognised migrants, on the other hand, should be given humanitarian aid. Europe needs to focus all its efforts around this matter. If we allow this mass of illegal economic refugees to cross, than it’s a matter of weeks or months before EU member states unilaterally close their borders. This definitely won’t be good for Europe, and certainly not for Macedonia.

Does the Macedonian government still believe in a European solution, also sought by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

A European solution is the best option for Macedonia. National solutions only shift problems from one country to the next.

Can we expect a European solution at the next EU Summit on 7 March?

I don’t believe that the number of refugees will reduce soon after 7 March. It all depends on Turkey. But Turkey has a strong argument as well. It has received five million persons in four years at their own expense. That is why we need to focus on the security of EU’s external borders towards Turkey.

Thousands of refugees are waiting on your border to take the Balkan route. What is the current situation?

The number of refugees at our border is increasing. But there are no more illegal entries into Macedonia. The biggest problem is the speed in which migrants reach our borders from Turkey. They need less than two days to cross Greece. We firmly believe that the decision concerning asylum seekers should be made in the Schengen country in which migrants first arrive.

On the initiative of Austria, Macedonia and other Balkan countries agreed to block the Balkan route, without including Greece. Was a political mistake made?

Solution can be found only in cooperation with Greece. This is in Macedonia’s interest as a neighbouring country. These are hard times with complex problems. But one thing is clear; Greece needs to take more action towards finding a solution.

Does the blockade of the Balkan route only cause problems to shift from one country to the other?

When strengthening border control we need to be careful not to start conflicts among neighbours. Slovenia returned illegal migrants to Croatia, Croatia to Serbia, and Serbia to Macedonia, etc. In case of a larger number of refugees, I fear this scenario can become reality. If this pressure is also increased on the south of the Balkan route, we can have serious conflict situations in the Balkans. Our goal should be to avoid this scenario.

Will Macedonia continue to put up fences?

We have already built a 20 kilometres long fence on our border with Greece to prevent smuggling of migrants. Our message is clear; smuggling of migrants on the Balkan route will not be tolerated. That is why we have strengthened security on the border and we register every refugee.

What do you expect of the German government?

At the moment, the support received from the EU is insufficient. It takes a long time. So far, we have received support in personnel and technical equipment from other Balkan countries, from members of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary), as well as Austria. Germany can of course do the same. But what’s more important in Germany’s case, as the principal final destination of migrants is for the country to send us a clear message on how to deal with migrants in the long run. That would be most helpful for improving the coordination of efforts in the Balkans.

Is Turkey the key to solving the problem as Chancellor Merkel believes?

I agree with the Chancellor. Turkey plays a key role. There is no solution without Turkey’s involvement. We should not underestimate the weight of efforts made by Turkey towards solving the refugee issue. That is why it is difficult to persuade the country to carry the burden on its own.

If Germany suddenly closes its borders, will this mean immediate closure of Macedonian borders?

We need to follow the policy of targeted countries whether it’s Germany or Austria. If such measures are implemented, we need a corresponding response. The closure of Northern Europe, when more and more refugees keep arriving from the South would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. For Macedonia, a non-EU country with only two million citizens, this would be disastrous.

Thank you for the interview.