Interview of DPM and MFA Nikola Poposki for Die Welt

Journalist: Sonja Gillert

Date: 19.10.2016


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Macedonia closed the Balkan route in March and consequently caused a significant decrease in the number of refugees. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikola Poposki embraces Merkel’s welcoming policy towards refugees – opening borders is not an option.

Die Welt: Around 700.000 people crossed Macedonia on the Balkan route to go to northern Europe until Skopje closed its border with Greece in March. What is the current condition of the border?

Nikola Poposki: Conditions today cannot be compared to those before closing the border. Last September we had 11.000 to 14.000 people at the border every single day. It was a disaster. Today we can have a few hundred on a bad day and in most cases we prevent illegal crossings. We have registered around 35.000 attempts of illegal crossings into Macedonia since January.

Die Welt: The number of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece is rising once again and Greece is transferring migrants from the islands to its mainland. Do you expect an increase of migrants on the Macedonian border?

Poposki: Since smugglers are aware that there is a pretty solid control of the border to Macedonia, most refugees don’t use this route. Most of them use the land border between Turkey and Greece, moving through Bulgaria towards Northern Europe. This poses a risk. If Turkey is put under tremendous pressure, which can happen as result of negative developments in Egypt or in Syria, we can expect a surge in number of migrants. It is a cause for concern, but I don’t expect we’ll have the same scenario as in 2015.

Die Welt: In the past you complained that Greece could do better in securing its border. How do you judge their engagement now?

Poposki: Cooperation with Greece has changed drastically. A year ago we had no cooperation whatsoever. In practice, Greek authorities were measuring their success with the number of migrants crossing from Greece to Macedonia. After realizing that our border control doesn’t allow for the number of migrants to increase and that they can organize themselves better, they began to cooperate. At the moment, our border authorities cooperate directly on a daily basis to coordinate their efforts.

Die Welt: In the frame of the EU-Turkey-Refugee-Deal, Greece sends much less migrants back to Turkey than agreed on. What happens if the deal fails?

Poposki: I concur that numbers are very small and this poses a risk. But for the time being the only option we have is to uphold the EU-Turkey deal. If the deal fails Greece will once again be put under tremendous pressure and this might even force EU member states to push for suspending Greece from the Schengen area. This is not in our interest and it’s not in Europe’s interest. We should do everything possible to maintain the deal.

Die Welt: The new European Border and Coast Guard Agency can deploy up to 1500 border guards to secure EU’s external borders. Is that enough?

Poposki: Number-wise, it might not be enough. But the key issue will be the level of cooperation established between the border controls on both sides of the border.

Die Welt: Will Macedonia ask for Frontex assistance in securing the Macedonian side of the border with Greece?

Poposki: This was politically objected by Greece. For the moment we are controlling the border with the support of a number of EU member states like Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia who send police officers. It makes no difference to us whether Austrian police officers will come to the Macedonian border under the Austrian flag or as part of Frontex.

Die Welt: In September the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized Macedonia’s policies towards migrants, saying that Macedonia follows a policy of eviction and detention in transit centers.

Poposki: It is his job and we are cooperating with him. But I think this is unfair. We do have a couple of hundreds of refugees and migrants in Macedonia which have the possibility to seek asylum here. The biggest problem is that they don’t want to apply for asylum here, because than they won’t be able to apply for asylum in Germany, Austria or somewhere else. So they are the ones not willing to do it.

Die Welt: Macedonia was also criticized for closing its border.

Poposki: That was a bit hypocritical, since stopping the migrant flow is not in our interest. People were simply crossing our country to reach Western Europe. That would cost us less money and would not put us in the focus of criticism. If Macedonia hadn’t closed the border, Schengen would have collapsed and every single country affected by the migration crisis would have set up border controls. The most favorable and politically most acceptable solution is for someone else to do it, and well, we did it. Most of the people in Europe are grateful we did and are even happy because of it. But some of them didn’t express this out loud.

Die Welt: Why did Macedonia close the border then if you say it would have been easier for Macedonia to let people cross your country?

Poposki: Because we want to be part of the European Union. That was in European interest and there was a European decision to close the Balkan migration route. For us, it was very important to prove that we deserve to be part of the EU.

Die Welt: Have Germany and the EU offered enough support for coping with the refugee crisis?

Poposki: In terms of direct support on the ground, no. But we weren’t expecting anything else. We are kind of used to the different standards for different kinds of situations. If we consider how much money Greece has received and what efforts they have done with them, it is beyond comparison. There are two types of countries – those in the EU and those outside. The biggest support we received was bilateral, police officers from certain countries for border control.

Die Welt: Do you want bigger financial support from the EU?

Poposki: It would be nice, but that’s an illusion. The support would probably be more in the line of commitments and less in practical matters. Complaining and saying we need more money will not help us, but will leave us frustrated instead. So it’s better that we focus on a more rational approach.

Die Welt: Macedonia is a candidate for EU membership. How did Brexit influence Macedonia’s interest in becoming a member?

Poposki: Brexit has affected us, because Great Britain has historically been a big supporter of EU enlargement. Now, this voice is probably going to disappear. And the confidence in EU enlargement has also been greatly affected by Brexit as well as by the migration crisis. There is an opposite too. The solution to a disorganized migration crisis was brought by a non-EU-country and most of the problems such as lack of administration or data processing are produced within the EU. But Brexit has not affected the interest and willingness of our people to enter the EU.

Die Welt: Last year, the EU criticized Skopje because of the political crisis as well as the illegal wiretapping scandal involving 20,000 allegations of illegal wire-tapping of 20.000 people. The EU commission claims Skopje to implement necessary reforms, including free and fair reelections in December and implementation of needed reforms. Is Skopje meeting these claims?

Poposki: By far. In terms of starting accession negotiation we have fullfilled all criteria since 2009, but no one cares about it. We should already been in the seventh year of negotiations, if there was a fair treatment. It has been delayed a number of times, because there was an opposition from at least one member state based on the name issue, Greece. But I have no doubts that we are ready to have accession negotiations.

Die Welt: Do you feel unfairly treated by the EU?

Poposki: There is nothing about fairness in this process. It is about real politics. You have big guys that have their own certain rules and standards, and you have small guys that need to comply with the ones that were imposed on them.

Die Welt: When do you expect Macedonia to be accepted as an EU member state?

Poposki: Realistically, it is more likely that there would be a package and this package can come maybe in 2024/25, when a number of countries from Balkan region as a package will be able to join EU. It not only depends on Macedonia. The reforms depend on Macedonia, but the membership is much more a political decision. It depends more on Germany and France, than it does on any other parameters.

Die Welt: German Chancellor Merkel was criticized for inviting refugees to come to Germany. Do you agree with that?

Poposki: It is unfair to say that this crisis is Germany’s fault. The German Chancellor has greater responsibility than anyone else to send a message and to project the values of the EU. One of those values is that we need to help people in difficulty. Another aspect is the question whether we can sustain such pressure. And the answer is: No. If we face another year like 2015 in terms of the influx of migrants, then the Schengen area will collapse and a lot of people will begin to question their support for offering this kind of support on the European level. It is difficult to achieve this kind of balance.

Die Welt: Germany is not offering to take in a few hundred refugees stranded in Italy and Greece on a monthly basis. The Austrian Foreign minister complained that this step could attract more people to migrate to Europe. What is your opinion?

Poposki: The biggest motivation for many economic migrants is the fact that some people managed to find better jobs and a better living standard. I don’t think Germany taking in a few hundred more is going to change the overall picture.

Die Welt: Last year Merkel said „We can do it“. Did we do it?

Poposki: If someone said that 1.2 million citizens will settle in Germany without causing any kind of civil disturbance, not many of us would believe it. There were some downsides but Germany has managed this crisis in a surprisingly good manner. But I doubt this can be repeated. That is why we have to keep the borders closed.

Die Welt: Is Europe ready for another surge in the number of refugees?

Poposki: Another refugee crisis like 2015 will change the concept of the EU. Countries will take unilateral steps, and this will challenge the existence of Schengen and any other arrangements between member states. It can have dramatic consequences. We might be faced with a large numbers of migrants stranded in Macedonia. And our people will experience a strong feeling of injustice because we are faced with a problem that wasn’t caused by us and comes from the EU. The second wave can be prevented by closing the migration route like Macedonia did, having efficient border controls and with arrangements that deal with the migration crisis on Turkish territory.

Die Welt: A terrorist suspect was arrested in Germany. Some terrorist networks have also used the refugee route to infiltrate terrorists. How can that be prevented?

Poposki: We can counter this by increasing the level of shared information with other countries that are not part of the EU, but are found along the migrant route. We feel it’s a huge drawback that we were not treated as an equal footing partner at this level. At the moment, we try to get information through our partners among member states. But this is far from sufficient in terms of security. Macedonia and Serbia should immediately be given access to the information system.