Interviews and Speeches

To what extent Macedonia will be present in the EU depends on Athens, but to what extent Europe will be present in our country depends solely on us

Poposki: At this stage, Macedonia is highly motivated to achieve a solution. Yet, considering the current situation in Athens, the other side has a very low level of motivation in this respect, insisting on delays and non-settlement.

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A.D.: We interviewed the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia, Nikola Poposki, on the first working day after the New Year holidays. The first working meeting the chief of the Macedonian diplomacy had in 2014 was, by chance or perhaps not, with the US Ambassador to Macedonia, Paul Wohlers, and the main topic of their discussions was the Euro-Atlantic integration of Macedonia. The same topic prevailed in the MKD.MK interview with Minister Poposki and we would say that his Euro-optimism is not diminishing. On the contrary, in spite of all he is convinced that both the EU and NATO will recognize the benefits from Macedonia’s membership of these organizations. Of course, there still remains the open question- when?
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What are the chances that this year the stalemate in at least one of the processes of Euro-Atlantic integration of Macedonia be ended?

- As regards Macedonia’s entry into NATO, the only possibility is the Cardiff Summit in September. The parameters for the decision to extend an invitation have not changed. There is no departure from those parameters. We know wherein the rub lies with respect to our integration processes. There have been no dramatic developments in Greece that would show constructiveness and that would prompt a move forward in the decision making process. I do not think there are any major developments showing an enhanced motivation for a more constructive approach. On the other hand, it is encouraging that day in, day out we are proving our capability for NATO membership. This is our trump card and other NATO members appreciate and greatly value this. However, there are no signals that such a perception of NATO members has any impact on Greece, or that it has any effect on the ultimate enforcement of ICJ judgment.

The situation is quite different when it comes to the EU. In 2008, NATO clearly stated and all members, including Greece, agreed that we are ready for membership and that the decision to block our membership is of political character. In the EU context, it is a matter of a longer term process. We need a date for start of accession talks for purposes of real development. We will have to adopt and apply a great number of EU regulations until we become an EU member. This would mean more Europe in Macedonia. Yet, this depends solely on us. We will have to fulfil a number of tasks in this context in order that by the end of 2014 we are closer to the EU standards than today.

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What if we fulfil all those tasks? Thus far we have fulfilled many other tasks in order that we get a start of negotiations, but nothing happened. Do you think anything will change even if we adopt and apply this new set of standards? How long can this stalemate last?

- We could not draw the same parallel with respect to the EU. We are fulfilling these tasks in order to make Macedonia a better place for living; this is the main benefit from the application of standards, no matter the perceptions or desires in EU member-states’ capitals, primarily in Athens. That is our top priority. We could turn this question the other way around: Should we be satisfied if we became EU member state tomorrow, but without ensuring the required standards and thus without increasing the quality of life of our citizens in all areas? The answer is more than clear. The sustainability of efforts in pursuing this concept requires results, i.e. a movement forward. EU and NATO membership should be attained as soon as possible. This is the only way to accomplish our long term strategic goals. EU and NATO membership is not taken for granted as a pro forma exercise. It is a long term process in the course of which Macedonian citizens will be able to pursue their goals in the best possible manner, only in a country part of NATO and EU.

Are your certain of this? Do you think that if Macedonia is not part of NATO and the EU, than it will not be able to accomplish its strategic goals?

- I do not think it will be able to do so.

Scepticism with respect to EU membership is growing. Hence the question whether the fulfilment of those standards must be part of the project of EU membership? This could be fully detached from membership of the EU.

- In the NATO context, things are much simpler. We are not nor have we ever been under the threat of being invaded and this is a viable argument. On the other hand, I believe that NATO membership is an important factor for the economic development perception. You can more easily convince a foreign investor if you offer the argument of political and security stability ensured by NATO membership.

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Yes, but as we heard in the Prime Minister's New Year’s address to the nation, this year there will be at least 20 new foreign investments. Yet, we are not a NATO member.

- Our not being a NATO member is not an obstacle. Of course, every investor coming to our country seeks profit. That is after all our goal; if investors do not generate profits, they will not stay in the country. No one invests because of emotions or to satisfy our sentiments or needs. However, the image of Macedonia as a good investment destination can only be improved by our NATO membership. Our NATO membership can only enhance the investment conditions we offer.

To what extent could our being far from EU membership encourage the Albanian factor in Macedonia to take somewhat different steps in respect of which we would definitely need to be a NATO member? Both DUI and DPA are more and more frequently making "to be, or not to be” statements. How can we bypass this?

- First, we must not allow that the reasoning according to which if we do not become a member of the EU we will face such or other worst case scenarios, i.e. dramas be used as an argument in favour of our EU membership.

Yes, but there are those that consider and offer this as a realistic possible scenario.

- If you adopt such reasoning, the effect you achieve among those that decide on your membership is that they will think that if there is trouble because you are not part of the EU than you carry a potential risk. In a situation in which Europe is facing its internal economic problems, in a situation of rise of radical political groups endeavouring for a different political order and similar, I think this is the worst argument one could use to convince those that decide on EU’s enlargement. Quite the contrary, you become an EU member state when the Union sees that you do not carry with you any threats; that your entry into the EU comes at the end of a logical sequence of events. Hence, arguments in favour of Macedonia’s EU membership should go along these lines. That is the first thing. The second thing is that regardless of the dynamics developments will follow, the decision on EU accession is adopted by all EU members. Considering the present situation, especially the turbulences and resistance that the last rounds of enlargement have caused among older EU member states, there will be no accession unless all EU member states are confident that we do not carry any threats; that we fulfil the same criteria; and that there is the same level of predictability of future developments in our country.

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What you are saying sounds good, and it should be like this considering the overall positioning of the EU, at least in theory. However, we can witness certain political decisions being made regarding new EU member states. Could we ask the question the other way around: is it not possible that such threats are an advantage when it comes to such purely political decisions on membership?

- All decisions on EU's enlargement are political.

No, what I am referring to are decisions adopted in situations in which prescribed standards were not fulfilled, and Brussels did not mind adopting a decision on membership.

- You have to fulfil preconditions in order to accede. This is a valid condition, especially after the latest rounds of enlargement. I would say that previously this has not always been the case, especially if you consider how Greece became an EU member state. At this stage, there is the prevailing opinion that there have been oversights in the EU enlargement, that criteria should be made stricter making thus the accession process more difficult for those that want to become members. This is the reality. However, I must reiterate that the decision is a political one, and it is based not only on fulfilment of criteria, but also on interests. At this moment, the interest is not that now and at any cost all Balkan countries must become EU member states. The word now is that you have to fulfil these criteria and even other additional ones, so that the possibility is considered for enlargement in the coming 5 to 6 years. This is the political reality against the background of which progress is assessed, and which is abused by individual member states that want to prevent the progress in enlargement, by conditioning the country that wants to become a member with an issue, which is of national interest.

Have there been any reactions by your colleagues in the EU, especially regarding the economic opening of Macedonia to other markets, i.e. regarding the signing of the agreement on supply with Russian gas, the visits to India...

- The most often reaction in this respect has been that we are rather late in this opening. The EU has anticipated such trends much earlier. This trend of opening to growing markets is a global trend, i.e. it is a trend among all European companies, in all EU member states. After all, it is not by accident that the EU has raised the relations with fast growing economies and countries which are gaining a more significant role in the global setting to the level of strategic partnerships. Our problem is that we have started this process of discovering and opening to such markets rather late. In conditions of economic stagnation of the European market, this could be a major disadvantage for inflexible economies.

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Yes, but only a week following the singing of the South Stream agreement, some EU representatives did not miss the opportunity to warn us about non respecting certain rules set out by the European energy regulations.

- I do not think we should make general statements about rules and their application. There is a regulation which is applied in this respect. Ensuring a stable source of energy is of strategic importance for the economic development. As regards Europe, whether the energy is supplied from the north or south does not have such great relevance. What is important is to ensure a stable energy supply. The South Stream project is of strategic importance for Macedonia in terms of ensuring energy supply in the long run. As regards regulations and their application, they fall within the market and market regulation ambit. I do not see any obstacle why such strategic projects could not be implemented in Southeast Europe. According to all assessments if the region lacks energy, this will be the major factor limiting the economic development of the country.

However, at the same time we were politely told that perhaps it would be better if we got gas from the Azerbaijan gas pipeline, the Trans Adriatic pipeline, Greece-Albania, and not from Russia.

- It is good to ensure several sources of energy. The region can only benefit from several types of energy and securing such energy should only be welcomed if this is economically viable.

The European Commission has granted you the Excellence Award for contribution to the EU’s Western Balkan Policy. Have you ever thought of returning the award now that you have first hand experience how the enlargement process is pursued?

- No. The result of EU’s enlargement policy is richer Europe. This is an exceptionally successful policy. I have no dilemmas that both the EU and Macedonia will benefit greatly when we too become an EU member state. The fact that certain principles have been infringed upon and that not always there has been a logical sequence of events in the case of Macedonia must not lead us to disappointment and resignation. Au contraire! Everything that has been achieved in Macedonia in the context of our EU integration represents the most important pillar of development, while we pursue reforms and make the Macedonian economy more competitive at the European market. Enlargement is not a failed project. Even more, the enlargement process is the best engine of dynamic change driving our society forward.

However, the entire matter is indeed frustrating. I am certain that it is as much frustrating to you as it is to all our citizens, who when seeing how things have been shaping up recently in the region as a whole and, especially, how Serbia got its date for starting accession negotiations with the EU, for example… If I was in your place, I would return the award that the EC has bestowed upon me.

- We probably have our differences as regards the issue of what the benefits from becoming a member state of the EU actually are. The capital gains that Macedonia would derive from joining the EU bear enough value for all citizens to continue threading that path. It is indeed quite difficult to accurately identify how large those capital gains would actually be for our country, but, in the long run, the entire process would most certainly prove to be the most worthwhile operation that we as a country with a total population of only two million which, on top of that, is completely landlocked and right in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula could ever be possible to complete. I honestly cannot see any other operation that could bring as great and long-ranging benefits to us as the one I was just referring to. Therefore, the advantages that we would gain from becoming a full-fledged member state of the EU should only serve as an additional motivation for us to continue working towards that objective.

Would you say that there is a eurosceptic undercurrent running through the incumbent government cabinet?

- Our government program defines our country’s accession to both NATO and the EU as strategic objective of the highest order. Hence, seen from that aspect, I would say that it is very clear where our aspirations lie and what we are working towards.

Following EU’s last and fifth consecutive negative reply on setting Macedonia a date for starting accession negotiations, the need for finally defining where that famed red line of ours would lie as regards the problem we have been having with Greece over our country’s constitutional, as well as for all political stakeholders arriving at a wide consensus on the issue has once again been made apparent. Would you agree with that?

- I feel that the red lines you are referring to have already been drawn and have been quite clearly formulated. We want to arrive at a compromise solution with our southern neighbour that will not call into question the national attributes of either the Republic of Macedonia as a sovereign state or the Macedonian nation in its entirety and will, as such, be supported by the majority of the Macedonian citizens at a popular referendum that would be called on the matter once a possible solution has been placed on the table. That, in a nutshell, is our position.

The compromise you have just mentioned still has to stand for something. Could you explain what it entails?

- First of all, I would not say that we have not already demonstrated our capacity and willingness to arrive at a compromise. After all, the current state of affairs with regard to the issue is also the result of a serious compromise made years ago on our part that already has far-reaching implications on those well-known and long-since formulated fundamental rules and principles defining the sovereignty of any state in the world. We have already accepted the compromise of being admitted to UN membership under a coined reference of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” all those years ago and that is how we are referred to within UN quarters to this very day. That has been a precondition that has never before or since been placed before any other UN member state prior to its admission to UN membership. It has also been a precondition that also breaks away from that basic principle of respecting the right to self-determination. It even goes a step beyond seeing as certain attributes that have been called into question by the very country that has imposed this dispute on us stretch well beyond the fundamental principles as laid down in the UN Charter itself. The 2011 Judgment of the International Court of Justice in The Hague unambiguously states that Macedonia has been approaching the process of finding a solution to the name issue in both a constructive fashion, as well as acting in good faith. This clearly testifies to the capacity for compromise that we have been openly demonstrating to date in many different ways and under a variety of circumstances. Moreover, need I remind you of the fact that, in its Judgment, the ICJ has also stated that Macedonia has not done anything over the years which can be deemed as disruptive to the solution-seeking process? That, however, has not been the case with the other side in the dispute. The crux of the matter when it comes to arriving at a compromise on the issue lies solely in the other side’s lack of motivation to find a solution. We are at a juncture at which Macedonia is displaying huge amounts of motivation to move the process forward and arrive at a solution, but, on the other hand, the other side in the dispute, due to the current circumstances in Athens, is displaying none whatsoever which, in itself, poses a serious problem when it comes to the two countries finding any sort of an acceptable solution to the matter. To put it quite simply, one of the two sides in the dispute is displaying a complete lack of motivation to try and arrive at a compromise to the issue and, hence, move the process forward. What we are, instead, seeing from the other side in the dispute is its propensity towards endlessly procrastinating and perpetually avoiding reaching any sort of a solution to the problem whatsoever.

Do you still hold the view that the differences between the two sides with regards to our constitutional name are as big as mountains?

- In terms of the motivation for finding a solution I was just referring to, I would say yes. Unfortunately, there are towering mountains standing in between us.

Where does the solution lie? Should the entire problem be shifted to the UN and the Security Council or should we, for example, file a new application to the International Court of Justice in The Hague?

- I would not go that far as to say that the options you were referring to are something that we desire. It is indeed a possibility that the rules and regulations of the UN open up for us when it comes to allowing that the 2011 ICJ Judgment is actually enforced. The Judgment itself states that, as a side in the dispute, our country has approached the talks process in good faith and has been constructively trying to overcome this artificially created issue. Nonetheless, it should be taken into account that each process taking place within the UN also depends on the decisions that other major players within the UN are going to take. That does not mean that we either want or desire to engage in such a process, but we are not factoring out the possibility of doing so. At this point in time, what is important for us is that, in its Judgment, the ICJ has clearly stated that, as a side in the dispute, we have not disrupted the process in any way, shape or form, while the other side has seriously violated the legal framework as set out by the UN. That is precisely what I would stick to.

I see what you mean, but we have had the same situation since 2011 when the ICH passed its Judgment. What have we gotten out of it? Perhaps it is indeed necessary to explore those options that the rules and regulations of the UN are opening up for us?

- I have to agree that we would derive no benefits whatsoever from allowing that this situation lingers on indefinitely. However, any step we would possibly be making in the future should take into account all potential options and outcomes it would be resulting in. On top of that, when you consider that we are dealing with a side in the dispute that obviously has no intention to adhere to judgments passed by the highest court of the UN…

It does not take long to figure that one out…

- Of course, it is simply a fact and it is crystal clear. Nevertheless, what is vital for us is the issue of how we could reach our objective in the best possible way. Perhaps by taking one step or maybe two steps, or even more? There is indeed a wide spectrum of opportunities lying before us in that regard, but, ultimately, we have to take into consideration that the organization we wish to accede to has the country that has created this dispute in the first place as one of its member states. That, by all means, implies that we should indeed be able to live together with that country as parts of the same organization.

You seem to be very careful when picking your answers as to what steps would Macedonia be taking with regard to the issue in the period ahead. Should I take the liberty of saying that you are doing it because our position on what our next moves will be has not quite been defined yet or is it simply because you do not want to place all your cards on the table for the other side in the dispute to see, seeing as, that side, as we all know very well, has a much greater pull on things, at least when it comes to lobbying abroad?

- The issues at hand have been imposed upon us for quite some time. Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is why such moves were not made when we accepted to sign the Interim Accord itself in the first place when we had conditions placed before us that clearly encroached on everything previously arranged in the UN. However, today, we should be focusing solely on the future and not on the opportunities missed twenty years ago. Therefore, any step we would be making would need to be considered from every possible angle much like when we decided to open the case in The Hague and make our next steps by approaching the matter in the same thorough and realistic manner. We should continue taking the same well-defined approach with regard to what we want to achieve and, hence, not allow that the Macedonian national interests become jeopardized by a bilateral dispute that has been imposed on us without any grounds. That is where that thoroughness or, perhaps, standoffishness that you were referring to stems from.

Is there a possibility that Macedonia will be filing a new application before the International Court of Justice in The Hague?

- We already have a crystal clear, impartial and legally unambiguous judgment by the ICJ which clearly identifies which side has been the one that has violated the 1995 Interim Accord. Any other decision we would potentially be making will be aligned with that Judgment which forms the pillar that, from a legal standpoint, regulates the relations between Macedonia and Greece.

Does that mean that this option is actually being considered?

- I would not go that far as to confirm that, but I am also not ruling that option out.

What are your expectations for the coming year? How much can all this we were discussing bring us a step closer in our EU integration?

- How far we will progress primarily depends on ourselves and what we will be doing on our domestic front. To what extent will Macedonia be present in the EU mostly depends on Athens, but to what extent will Europe, in its turn, be present in our country depends solely on us. I feel that we should refocus all the energy and frustrations we have been taken by as a result of this unprincipled blockade primarily on bringing Europe and as many European standards as possible to Macedonia. By doing so, we will be able to, first and foremost, beat the arguments of those who want to delay our EU membership, help the all citizens of Macedonia and, for that matter, raise the standard of living, as well as move the process forward once this politically imposed blockade has been lifted. Moreover, rest assured that that day will indeed come and when it does come we will have much less work to do. Hence, this year, we should invest our energy in applying as many European standards as possible right here at home which will certainly strengthen our overall position in that regard. We should not allow that our agenda be driven by those otherwise justified frustrations that Athens’ blockade has caused us. That is, in fact, how we could best help that the issue is finally overcome. To sum this all up, I would once again emphasize that Macedonia will indeed become a member state of both the EU and NATO.

The only question remaining is when.

- Exactly, the question is simply when.