Interviews and Speeches

Interview of MFA Nikola Poposki for Wall Street Journal

Date: 05.02.2016 



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The Macedonian foreign minister, Nikola Poposki, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about Europe’s plan to tighten security and possibly seal off Greece in reaction to the migration crisis and if all other European policies fail. Mr. Poposki said European governments are still betting on “Plan A: that a deal with Turkey on stemming the migration flow will work, along with Greece better registering migrants, sending back those denied asylum and redistributing refugees across the bloc. But in case these policies fail over the coming weeks, countries like Austria and Germany might prefer to secure the Macedonian border than have the highly-prized border-free Schengen area completely dismantled. Here is an edited transcript.

WSJ: Are you about to stop all migrants who come from Greece? Is this the new European Union border?
Nikola Poposki: That is an exaggeration. This decision will depend on all member states. It should be an awakening signal to all of us that things have to change pretty quickly. Almost 1 million used the Balkan route last year. Now numbers are around 3,000 a day, but we’re in January. We aren’t three months away, but weeks [when we need to know] whether there is a change on hotspots, managing the migrant flows, readmission agreements, on whether the Turkey deal is working — or not. The big question is, what if not?

WSJ: Could the border closures over the past few weeks be seen as a rehearsal for a complete closure?

NP: On Wednesday it was more a technical issue, it was a three-to-four hour closure derived from the fact that Croatia had some technical difficulties registering migrants. This meant that they closed access from Serbia; Serbia did the same thing at our border, we had people piling up on our side and as a consequence we had these temporary measures in place. Two weeks ago we had quite a few people on our side, so our capacity was filled, but there was no decision to seal off the border. As you know, we have received bilateral assistance, both for border control and for registration efforts, reception centers at the entry points from Greece. We have between 50-90 foreign border guards, the numbers fluctuate because they come in shifts. They are helping us to work out how to prevent human trafficking and smuggling, those with no papers from Greece will not use the regular border crossings. So we need to converge them, to get them to come to registration points for fingerprinting. It is pretty difficult to set up a database when you’re outside the system, as we are not an EU member. Efforts have been made to link us to the EU databases but there might be formal and also political impediments, as you might imagine, one country in particular could have problems with this.

WSJ: Does that mean that cooperation with your southern neighbor is not improving?

NP: It is improving, compared to last summer, the communication between Greek and Macedonian guards and also at ministers level. But the trouble is that the Greek rate of success is measured by how many migrants leave the Greek territory. Our rate of success is measured in few illegal crossings on our territory. We don’t have the same kind of objectives. For us the biggest fear is that if the borders close up further north, if we have 6,000-7,000 entering every day as we had at the peak last year, that means 70,000 in ten days, in two months 20% of the population – a dramatic situation. This is a disaster scenario we would like to avoid. Communication has improved, but the interests are not the same and Greece still has difficulties in controlling the islands, and as the pressure increases, they ship people to the mainland, and then they’re at the Macedonian border in hours. That’s the trouble.

WSJ: What’s Europe’s game plan here? Will Greece turn into a big refugee camp?

NP: Our interest is not to be a collateral damage of something that we have neither provoked nor we are responsible for. We have done everything to provide human and secure treatment to all migrants in need. We are a country on this road, and the only country where they come in from an EU country. Most of the receiving countries in the EU converge on plan A which everyone would like to work: hotspots work, that there is good cooperation between Greek and Turkish coast guards, that they have readmission. If this doesn’t work, the option is do you want to control the next border or do you want to suspend Schengen at each one of the member states’ national borders? So Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and also Croatia or Serbia may say it’s better to provide Macedonia with support for its border than suspend the free movement of people.
Everybody is betting on plan A, but everyone has back thoughts on what to do if this fails. I hope this worst case scenario doesn’t happen, because we don’t have an interest in migrants being stationed in Greece without being processed or without being provided human treatment. It’s never good to have this situation in your neighborhood. It’s even worse if you have it on your territory.

WSJ: Would it even work? The migrants would just change route, head to to Italy or Bulgaria.

NP: I don’t think it’s physically possible to seal off borders, and it’s not in our interest – Greece is one of our major economic partners and the number one tourist attraction for Macedonians. If Greece gets suspended from Schengen, it’s not going to be good to us, who have visa-free travel to Schengen. It’s definitely not a scenario we’d like to see. However, things developed at such a dramatic pace last year that it’s completely unpredictable what might happen if plan A won’t work. Sealing off is not possible. Strengthening border management, making it more efficient — there might be a case for that, but our bets are still on plan A working. Right now it should be a signal to everyone, including the Greeks, that we need to work together.

WSJ: What do you consider a manageable flow for Macedonia?

NP: It’s 2,000-3,000 that we now have at our borders. We have about as many people entering Greece as we have entering Macedonia. The problem with Greece is, there are already quite a few people there. For us, any migrant flow would be manageable, as long as we know there is a flow. Our upper limit is determined by the stream up north. We have communication from member states that they will fix annual quotas. Austria has announced 37,500, you can divide it by 365 days and determine precisely what the number of border crossings there will be into Austria. And those should be your numbers onto your territory.

WSJ: But in terms of processing capacity, is 3,000 a day your limit?

NP: This is something that can be increased. If you have, at a European level, the determination to process more people, and if you have the means to do that, everything can be done. But if your are left to your own devices, as a country of 2 million people, as we have been left over the summer, your capacities are pretty limited. Just imagine, nearly 1 million people in one year.

WSJ: What is the role of Frontex in your country?

NP: Frontex is set up to protect EU’s external borders. The only external border where Frontex was not present was the Macedonian border, on the Greek side. Now they have a mission of 4-5 people who are on the ground and are observing the situation. From the information I have, they are overstretched and they focus on the Greek-Turkish border. Any help to us would be more than welcome. But we call for the assistance that is feasible, which right now is bilateral assistance.

WSJ: Which countries are helping you right now?

NP: Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Czech Republic. Austria has announced it will be helping. Germany has been contributing through the EU funding for the humanitarian efforts.

WSJ: Did you get any signals on a diplomatic level that help with migration might advance your EU and NATO bids?

NP: I think it would be pretty naive to believe that. We have been contributing in the past and it hasn’t helped advance our cause. You can be needed, you can provide assistance, and not receive any trade-off in terms of advancing your EU and NATO causes. Because it ends up with the phrase: unanimity rule. We have learned the hard way without any hopes to get a fair treatment from Europe in terms of our euro-Atlantic integration.

WSJ: Is migration now the main issue in the your diplomatic contacts?

NP: Yes. But this is the politically most sensitive issue, we’ve had very intense communications with our ministry. Obviously this is a foreign policy issue, with the Syrian crisis and all the other connecting issues. There is an increasing number of member states who are realizing what you are saying. That we need assistance. This is changing. Many have realized that Europe needs us, but there are diverging views on where this migration crisis should be dealt with. On one side we have the principle of EU external borders – hotspots, readmission – and on the other side Greece making the point that it is not able to face this challenge on its own. I think the sooner we realize that the less we do something in terms of managing the migration flow — people are talking about three-to-six months, I would say it’s less than that, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for spring to arrive — then all sorts of worst-case scenarios are possible. Including the suspension of Schengen, that would be a very bad thing for us, and probably sealing of borders along the corridor on the Balkan route.

WSJ: So you get the sense that Europe is considering this worst-case scenario of basically abandoning Greece?

NP: Actually, this is the second-worst option, because the worst option is not doing anything and then each of the member states would be sealing off its own borders. That would mean a disaster for Europe and the European project. The one you describe is the second-worst. We are still betting on the best-case scenario.

WSJ: Are you considering a Hungary-style fence on your southern border?

NP: We have not fenced off the border. We are focusing on the vulnerable points where migrants are circumventing registration points and using these routes. We looked at the map and put our patrolling efforts on plains and easier access paths. This doesn’t mean migrants won’t try to cross through the mountains or lakes. Our border, contrary to the Hungarian border, is incomparable — forests, high mountains, lakes — so it’s not just a plain like in Hungary where you can deploy dozens of kilometers of fence. We can’t seal off the border, but we can increase the level of border management and incentivize people to use the regular border crossings.

WSJ: But if for instance the countries up north say they don’t want to have anyone come through anymore, won’t this fuel illegal migration even more?

NP: Very likely. This is why we have taken measures. There are no accurate numbers for smuggling, but if we compare with what was happening six months ago, there is a dramatic decrease of illegal border crossings. We are not naive, we don’t think this can be sealed off and there will be no migration. But unless we make these efforts, it’s pretty obvious you’re going to have masses of people illegally crossing the border.

WSJ: Of the nationalities who are rejected, did you start apprehending more?

NP: Yes, sometimes we apprehend people from African countries 60 kilometers into Macedonia, with no papers, so it’s clear they have been using these routes. Last year, we had entering and exiting numbers and the exiting numbers were often double the entries, meaning that many people were coming in without being registered. But this phenomenon was massive and has now decreased because of the patrolling efforts.