Interviews and Speeches

Bruxelles, 13/09/2019 (Agence Europe)


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On 15 October, the ‘General Affairs’ Council is due to decide on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.

While the decision has been postponed several times, Skopje, which has signed a historic agreement with Greece and another with Bulgaria, and is pursuing reforms, hopes that this time it will happen.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov visited Paris, Brussels and Berlin this week to explain the importance of his country's European future. (Interview by Camille-Cerise Gessant)

Agence Europe - How optimistic are you about a decision on the opening of accession negotiations in October?

Nikola Dimitrov: I’m trying to change the terminology to call it 'completion', because of the map of the European Union. If you look at the Western Balkans, we are encircled by Member States.

I am optimistic. We have a very compelling case this year for many reasons. There is an obvious push towards a proper European democracy, governed by the rule of law, where media are free and checks and balances are functional.

This was recognised by the very positive report of the Commission in May (see EUROPE B12266A3).

Then, we’ve done something that some said was almost impossible, which is to resolve one of the longest standing disputes in the region in a very European way, by reaching a European compromise that created a de facto solidarity between North Macedonia and Greece, as well as a friendship agreement with Bulgaria. So now we are a country that has no open bilateral issues in the region. The European attractiveness, the incentive, was one of the important elements in this process.

We hear the concerns of some Member States about how to make the accession process stricter and more change-oriented, which is very much at the core of the interests of the people in the region.

The stakes are huge, both for our democracy and for the region. And the decision on our file will be an important message to all other countries in the region and for the EU to maintain its leverage and credibility in the region.

AE - Is the situation different from June? Do you think there is a different feeling in some EU countries now?

Nikola Dimitrov: In June, the decision was delayed. The EU Council said it will review the progress in the key fundamental areas it gave in June 2018 - the fight against organised crime and corruption, judicial reforms, public administration and intelligence - and that it will make a decision with a view to starting the accession talks. This was not possible [in June], since time was short between the report of the Commission and the ‘General Affairs’ Council. Now all eyes are on mid-October.

So I think the stakes are such that there is very serious thinking in the capitals on how to seize this opportunity for success at a time when there are not too many opportunities for success.

AE- You have been a candidate for 14 years and have been waiting for negotiations to begin for 10 years. Do the Macedonians still believe in the EU and that one day their country will become a member?

Nikola Dimitrov: European integration is supported by 90% of citizens in the latest polls I have seen, which is more than all political parties combined.

On the other hand, I have to be honest, it won’t be easy for me, as a minister, to go back home after October and say: “Oh, they'll decide next year”. We need the political fuel to continue to drive in the right direction.

AE - Before the summer, your Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, was in Brussels and warned that if North Macedonia does not get a date for the opening of negotiations (at the time we were talking about June), there was a threat of the return of nationalism. Do you think that could happen (see EUROPE B12269A17)?

Nikola Dimitrov: As someone who is not a member of any party, I think the government doesn’t see an alternative to becoming European. If we don’t have the prospect [of membership, editor's note], and this is what is at stake essentially in October, we will be weakened and the sceptics, the nationalist and populist forces, will be strengthened. It will help those who have doubts about the European project, about this strategic direction. And a positive decision, the other way around, will help us to say: “You see, this is possible and it's in our hands”.

AE - In October, the EU Member States will also have to decide on Albania. Do you think you are hostage to the Albanian case, as some countries may be more open to opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and more reluctant with Albania, but are keeping both countries together?

Nikola Dimitrov: I see four aspects to this complex relationship. Our vision for the Balkans is that, in order for us to be a prosperous European democracy, we have a stake in the success of our neighbours as well. So it is in our national interest for Albania to also succeed.

Geopolitically, it is wise to invest in the European future of Tirana and to believe that concerns on some issues, such as the rule of law, will be better addressed if it is part of the process rather than out.

Having said that, it is not possible to reconcile a merit-based process, which is essentially based on the logic of conditionality, with making groups.

I think two [countries that obtain the opening of accession negotiations] is better than one, but one is better than zero. We need to work in the region to create a positive dynamic so that we help each other move forward, rather than a negative dynamic.

AE - Something that’s important for the EU are reforms linked to the rule of law. So where are you on this?

Nikola Dimitrov: On the fundamentals of democracy, I think there is obvious progress in terms of freedom of the media, which is very important for holding politicians to account.

We have improved the legislation, the legislative framework of our judiciary - which was praised by the Venice Commission - in close cooperation with them and the European Commission, and then in close consultation with civil society and the opposition.

Implementation is also probably more important than legislating.

We have a new anti-corruption commission, which is composed of people who have been selected in a very transparent procedure. They have broader jurisdiction and they have been up and running for a few months now. They have already opened 800 cases and closed about 200.

For the public administration, I’m going to give you an example: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The last 10 ambassadors we sent abroad have on average 22 years of diplomatic experience. The last 10 ambassadors of the previous government had on average less than 3 years' experience. So there’s a bigger emphasis on professionalism and merit than on partisanship. There is a law on senior civil servants under discussion that will promote this trend in the country.

The last area outlined in the [EU] Council conclusions is the intelligence sector reforms. We have a new legislative framework, but we have new institutions that are already up and running. One is an agency for interception of communications. We took that capacity from the Ministry of the Interior, established an independent agency and introduced three layers of oversight: parliament, civil society and the judiciary. And since 1 September, we have the national security agency, which is the state security and counterintelligence agency, and which used to also be part of the interior Ministry. This is now a separate agency where all employees are going through checks by 11 different institutions and many databases to make sure that we have functional and modern institutions dealing with these sensitive issues.

AE - On Tuesday, the von der Leyen Commission was announced. What do you think of the next Commissioner for Enlargement, László Trócsányi? Is it an issue that he was Minister of Justice in Hungary, where former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is living, while your country is asking Budapest to send him back?

Nikola Dimitrov: First of all, we’re glad that we have a portfolio that is essentially the same on substance as the portfolio of Commissioner Hahn.

We are also encouraged and appreciate the messages from the President-elect when it comes to our region and her interest in it, and we think that in the Commission, what’s really important is to maintain the two pillars on which a successful accession is based. One is the interest in making the region European, so engagement, and the second is the strict and fair approach to scrutinize [the situation] to make an objective assessment as to the state of progress or lack of progress. So we believe that the College of Commissioners, after the parliamentary hearing, will ensure that these two pillars continue to be maintained. Both are very important for a successful process.

With Hungary, we have an interest. They border the region and have an interest in progress in the region, which is definitely welcomed. It’s not a secret that we have one difference, which is our former prime minister, who has been convicted, and there are several pending cases against him, that he has sought refuge and found it in Hungary. It’s important to work together on the areas where we have common interests, despite this difference.