Macedonia's EU accession: what would a restart entail?

In his last State of the Union address, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reminded us of the obvious: that there would be no enlargement during the mandate of this Commission. He also underlined that the credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans must be maintained if the EU wants more stability in its neighborhood. On the following day, Commissioner Hahn in Belgrade launched a strategic partnership between the Commission and Serbia, a candidate country. At both of these occasions, a new strategy for enlargement for the Western Balkans was announced for early 2018.

The talk of a new strategy, with reference to 2025 as a potentially significant year for the Western Balkans, has been most prominent in Serbia and Montenegro, the candidates at the forefront of the queue currently negotiating accession. The one case that is difficult to locate on the accession spectrum, largely defying classification, is Macedonia. Once a frontrunner, and a country which still fares fairly well in its alignment with EU legislation, it has experienced huge backsliding in the operation of its judiciary and a massive wiretapping crisis. The deadlock over the name issue contributed to creating fertile ground for the capture of the state by the political parties in power, in the absence of an outside anchor. Having held parliamentary elections in December 2016, largely praised as a way out of the political crisis, the new government has been working towards advancing along the accession path. Contrary to the gloom and doom of a year ago, cautious enthusiasm has been spreading and talks have been ongoing regarding the restarting of Macedonia’s accession story.

As always, the time in Europe is not (quite) right. The Brexit negotiations, coupled with the aftermath of the migration/refugee crisis, have once again turned attention inward. Post-election coalition-building in Germany is likely to put major discussions on hold until the end of next year. Yet, on the other hand we have heard the desire of French President Macron to engage in a thorough reform of the institutions and changes that will hopefully reflect Juncker’s demand from the Commission that there needs to be action on enlargement.

Yet, the new government in Macedonia is placing a lot of faith (justified or not) in the prospects for European integration. Its first steps have been to reach out to Athens and Sofia as gatekeepers of EU integration. These steps are in stark contrast with the record of the previous government, which in recent years had largely given up on EU accession as well as regional trust building. Instead, Macedonia communicated meaningfully with the EU member states only when it came to guarding EU borders during the refugee crisis.

To be fair, it was not just the Government in Skopje that had given up on the EU agenda. The accession amnesia was also induced by the EU, since the Commission had not engaged meaningfully with the institutions and Macedonian civil servants since 2011, if not before. In effect, the last substantial efforts towards reforming in sync with European demands was the visa liberalization process, with all its faults. The name issue unfortunately paved the way for the EU member states, institutions and the Macedonian government to drop accession from the agenda. This was reflected in the sporadic EU engagement with the national institutions and the fact that the latter were allowed to go off the rails, largely also through the complacency of EU political partners. In practice, EU-Macedonian relations between 2010 and 2016 could be described, at best, as a bad simulation of EU accession. Yet, with all the faults of the accession process, if there is one thing we do know it is that the accession negotiations provide continuous exchange and socialization, at least between the officials and civil servants and their European counterparts. In Macedonia, the opposite was the case.

In 2018, it will be thirteen years since the country became a candidate and nine years since the Commission first recommended launching EU accession negotiations, conditioned by a resolution of the name dispute. Serbia and Montenegro, the current frontrunners, started the process at a later stage, but have since caught up with Macedonia in terms of their preparedness for EU accession when it comes to formal alignment with the EU. Still, being an early starter in the process, Macedonia does have the advantage of early legislative transposition, including longer periods of implementation, as recent research has indicated. It currently has a government that has been building its agenda using the movement towards Europe as the wind in its sails to deal with the difficult issues of judiciary reform and anticorruption, coupled with the wiretapping scandal. This will not be an easy task by any standards.

Given the domestic push, pull from the EU will have to follow as well, beyond the declaration of support for the new winds. Therefore, it is important for the new strategic document, due in February 2018, to take these concerns into consideration. Several issues stand out in this respect: first, the European institutions’ meaningful re-engagement with their counterparts in Macedonia to devise actions as closely in line as possible with European best practices and target European expert and financial assistance in this direction. In addition, work on the highly flammable neighborly relations would need to be financially supported to achieve visible outcomes, including but not limited to infrastructure. Lastly, the EU and its key member states cannot continue to treat the name issue as a poisonous well if any of these efforts are to make sense. Their support to the processes accompanying the negotiations on the name issue is much needed. All of the above would require a discussion on enlargement and a commitment from the EU member states and institutions, something we have not seen in the last couple of years.

Macedonia probably did not rank first in the mind of the Commission president when he thought about enlargement. Still, if there is one case in the region where enlargement needs to be re-invented, it is likely to rank first. 

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Simonida Kacarska

Dr. Simonida Kačarska is a Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje, Macedonia. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Leeds in the UK and a MA in European Politics from the Sussex European Institute. She was a research fellow at the Central European University, University of Oxford, the College of Europe and the European Research Council project The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia based at the University of Edinburgh School of Law. Simonida has both practitioner and research experience related to the political transformation and European integration of the Balkans with a focus on national... Read more about the author

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