EU enlargement towards the Balkans: What to do about Macedonia?

BRUSSELS – On the 2nd of December the European Policy Center organized a policy discussion about the future of the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, with a focus on Macedonia. The speakers invited were Michael Karnitschnig, Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Johannes Hahn; Nikola Dimitrov, Distinguished Fellow of the The Hague Institute for Global Justice; Stefan Lehne, Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe; Malinka Ristevska Jordanova from the Macedonian European Policy Institute; and Katerina Kolozova, Director of the Institute in Social Sciences and Humanities in Skopje.

The discussion revolved around the difficulty of moving forward in the relationship between the EU and Macedonia, a country which has been a candidate for accession since 2005 and received six consecutive positive recommendations from the European Commission to start accession negotiations. However, it has not happened to this date.

For Michael Karnitschnig, this is related to ‘’the magnitude of the challenge, which has grown over two decades- it is not comparable with what we have seen in CEE in mid 1990s.’’ He also puts a part of the responsibility on the Commission:

We have been often too diplomatic, not enough critical and not focused on fundamentals. In this year’s reporting cycle we have focused more on the fundamentals and have been more clear about what countries have to do.

Compared to the neighbouring countries that aspire to EU accession, Macedonia seems to be one of the laggards in the process. Commenting on this, Nikola Dimitrov said that ‘’there is hardly a more damaging case for EU enlargement than the Macedonian case. In Macedonia, the EU had the biggest success in conflict management together with NATO, and now it risks to have the biggest failure.’’ In his view, ‘’Macedonia is not different from its neighbors, but it is now ‘naked’ because of the tapes: we all see how governance is done.’’

Katerina Kolozova notes that Macedonia is a worse position that it seems in the EU Progress Report: ‘’It is very hard to notice flaws unless you are an insider. I think that when the EU is analyzing progress in the legislation, they just tick some boxes which are in line with the acquis.

But when one does a deeper analysis of the legislation, one can see a contradiction of some articles with others that are copy-pasted from EU directives. The absence of democratic culture has worsened, ever since 2011. The technique of camouflaging democratic reforms has made the case worse and strengthened authoritarianism. Macedonia precedes other countries in the region in the abuse of EU technocratic methodology and terminology to camouflage democratic reforms.’’

The idea of a freeze of relations with Macedonia has been raised in the discussion. The argument to support this idea is that it would be important that the EU punishes the current Macedonian government for the political crisis in which they have pulled the country. However, there has been disagreement on this.

‘’If there is no perspective of membership, there will be no EU leverage. If there is no clear reward and open perspective, we cannot even discuss about any possible EU leverage on Macedonia.’’, says Ristevska Jordanova.

Michael Karnitschnig also pointed out that the biggest leverage the EU can have on an aspiring member is during the accession negotiations with that country, not so much before and not at all after the conclusion of the negotiations.

Author: Doris Manu, European Western Balkans Brussels corespondent