Interviews and Speeches

Brussels will lose sway in Balkans and boost rivals if it rejects Skopje, says minister

Journalist: FT Michael Peel in Tallinn and Valerie Hopkins in Vienna
Date: 26.05.2019

фото МНР

Foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov: 'When there’s a good case [for accession talks], that needs to be recognised and rewarded'

The EU will lose influence in the western Balkans and risk boosting rivals such as Russia and China if it fails to endorse North Macedonia’s “compelling case” to begin discussions on joining the bloc, the country’s foreign minister has warned.

Nikola Dimitrov told the Financial Times it would be “difficult to talk . . . with a straight face” about ever-closer ties between Brussels and his region if EU member states failed to confirm a conditional decision to launch the accession process.

Doubts remain over whether the likes of France, Germany and the Netherlands will back North Macedonia’s push for membership at next month’s meeting of EU foreign and Europe ministers. Yet many European diplomats concede privately that the Balkan country has delivered on commitments, including changing its name to end a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece.

“When there’s a good case [for accession talks], that needs to be recognised and rewarded. If this doesn’t happen, then the leverage of the EU becomes weak,” Mr Dimitrov said in an interview, noting that the western Balkans was now a “theatre of geopolitical competition” involving Beijing and Moscow.

“If Europe cannot make a difference in the Balkans, then it is difficult to imagine how it will make a difference elsewhere.”

Mr Dimitrov, a former ambassador who quit during the corrupt regime of former premier Nikola Gruevski, has been lobbying in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries ahead of the membership vote. He said he was “fairly confident” that the EU would give North Macedonia the go-ahead “this year” to start talks to join, although he acknowledged that opposition had not disappeared.

The EU in June gave conditional approval to the accession bids of North Macedonia and neighbouring Albania. But it has postponed a final decision until after the European Parliament elections that are due to conclude on Sunday because of opposition to enlargement in some capitals. Paris in particular was worried that enlargement talks would play into the hands of anti-immigrant far-right parties ahead of the European polls.

Mr Dimitrov said he did not take the concerns lightly, but argued North Macedonia had to “create an atmosphere where it is almost embarrassing not to join the consensus” to support its bid.

His country had taken an “obvious U-turn for the better” by deepening reforms in areas such as fighting corruption, creating an “overwhelmingly compelling case” for accession talks, he said.

Most strikingly, it agreed to change its name from Macedonia last year to end a longstanding territorial spat with Athens because of the northern Greek region of the same name.

“I don’t think that this year it is easy to simply ignore our case,” said Mr Dimitrov, whose father was a refugee from the Greek civil war. “I don’t think we in Europe have the luxury of not consolidating success stories, because we don’t have too many.”

He warned that rejection by the EU would damage the credibility of the government in Skopje and boost the “shallow nationalists” opposed to it. It would be “discouraging also for those who attempt to resolve other important bilateral disputes” in a region plagued with disagreements since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

Skopje faces a further complication because of debate within the EU over whether to keep North Macedonia and Albania coupled on the same membership track. Tirana is widely seen by diplomats as less ready for accession talks because of concerns over the rule of law, corruption and organised crime.

Mr Dimitrov said he would like to help Albania, while acknowledging that each country would be judged on its own merits. “European voters are sceptical because they’re losing confidence that accession can actually change countries,” he said. “I think we have to be strict in assessing countries, with no politicisation.” 

The failure of North Macedonia’s EU membership bid would risk alienating reformist forces in the western Balkan region while encouraging autocrats, said Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.

“It sends a message in the region that it’s not worth it to take bold political decisions towards solving disputes,” said Simonida Kacarska, director of the Skopje-based European Policy Institute.