Interview with Bujar Osmani, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs of Macedonia in the government of Zoran Zaev. Osmani is the representative of DUI, Democratic Union for Integration, and the former Minister of Health in the Macedonian government.

European Western Balkans: Macedonia was facing numerous problems in past several years, but after the change of government, there are visible signs of improvement, especially when it comes to the relations of Macedonia with its neighbors. How do you see this?

Bujar Osmani: During the last several years, until the establishment of the new political majority and new Government, Macedonia was under serious threat of destabilisation, caused by a deep political and institutional crisis. The main causers of this crisis are, of course, of domestic origin, but the long-standing standstill in the progress towards the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions has grown into a leading catalyst for the disintegration processes in Macedonia. It is probably the strongest point on which the new political majority was built – the integration processes should be the pillar of the new Government, and a lag in the approximation to the EU and NATO should never be allowed again.

Thus, in the first 100 days we had the so-called thematic Government, which was dedicated to removing obstacles that stand on the way to the Euro-Atlantic processes. Viewing from an outset, the addressing of open political issues with neighbours and the evident progress in that field seem like the biggest change, but that is only one of the two trajectories underlying the new doctrine of unravelling the Euro-Atlantic processes. The second trajectory represents the removal of internal obstacles – addressing urgent reform priorities, which, transposed in the reform Plan 3-6-9, are already into an implementation process. Acting in parallel, not only did we achieve evident progress in this field, but the European optimism returning in the country gradually, and it is something which is the main driver of the processes in the society.

EWB: Are you preparing for the date for opening of the negotiations? How do those preparations look like?

BO: Having in mind that Macedonia was the first among the Balkan countries to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement in 2001, it gained the status of a candidate country in 2005, and we have been receiving positive recommendations for starting negotiations every year since 2009, it indicates that our administration is constantly facing implementation of the European rules, norms and standards which makes it ready for start of the negotiations. This is not only our conclusion but it is the conclusions of the European Commission, having already recommended start of the negotiations for eight times in a row, that represents recognition that Macedonia is ready for starting negotiations. What was concluded, for which we received conditionality to the Commission’s recommendation in the last two years, was mostly due to the lack of political will for implementation of the necessary reforms, remarks on the implementation of the rule of law, regression in the democratic processes, worsening of the situation in the media, human rights, etc. That was also the basis for the deep political and institutional crisis, which has been affecting the country for several years.

In that sense, our efforts today are more focused on the measures and activities that need to unravel the processes and which in a few steps should bring us to the start of negotiations for full membership in the European Union. Plan 3-6-9 is divided into three parts and it is named according to the estimates for the required months to implement the envisaged reforms in each of the sections.

Thus, the first section, section Three of Plan 3-6-9, refers to urgent reform priorities, whose envisaged implementation ends with the holding of local elections in the second half of October. According to the successful implementation of the reforms foreseen in section Three of the Plan 3-6-9, by the end of November we expect the first positive signals from the Council of the European Union. The second section of Plan 3-6-9, or section Six, provides for medium-term reforms whose timing coincides with the duration of approximately six months, or March the following year, when the new report is scheduled by the Commission, from where, in accordance with performance in the implementation of the Plan, we expect a pure and unconditional recommendation. The last section of Plan 3-6-9, or section Nine, which contains long-term reform processes, those that require a long time for addressing and implementation, are targeted for implementation as early as June 2018, which coincides with the June Summit of the European Union and the possibility of getting a date for negotiations for full membership in the European Union.

Bearing this in mind, I would like to emphasize that, although the reforms themselves represent an important segment of the political, economic and overall social progress of the Republic of Macedonia, however, the main fuel for their implementation is the progress towards the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. In that sense, in line with the success of the implementation of the Reforms, the political progress in closing the internal, as well as the opened issues with our neighbours, and the success in the approximation to the rules and processes of the European Union as a whole, I expect specific steps both by the European Commission and by the Member States of the Union. Brave steps that will be directed towards the visibility of the European perspectives in the Republic of Macedonia, and will be the foundation on which the new political narrative of Macedonia will be built.

EWB: Which chapter, in your opinion, will be the biggest challenge for Macedonia in the negotiations with the EU?

BO: When it comes to the EU accession negotiations, the most difficult chapter that has been pointed out by the European Commission which was also noted during the preparation of the answers to the Questionnaire is chapter 27 – Environment. Its difficulty is a result of the complexity of the areas it covers such as environment, climate, waters etc, and the EU standards that need to be transposed and implemented. The implementation is a challenge itself because these reforms are extremely costly.

However, chapters 23-Judiciary and fundamental rights and 24-Justice, freedom and security also have several levels of difficulty for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is because of the areas that they cover and the difficulty of the reforms that need to be implemented in order to guarantee rule of law, respect of fundamental rights and functional institutions. Secondly, we have the new approach of the European Commission which implies that these chapters are opened first and remain open throughout the entire negotiation process, that is, these are the two chapters that are last closed. Furthermore, the progress in the implementation of the reforms is not proved only with the adoption of the necessary legislation, but candidate countries are also required to provide evidence for the implementation of the legislation.

Off course, this does not mean that the other chapters do not require a high level of dedication and capacities for addressing the challenges that will arise during the accession negotiations.

EWB: Do you believe that there will soon be a positive shift in negotiations with Greece regarding the name issue?

BO: As I mentioned before, the Government decided to unleash the European processes by moving on two trajectories. One of them containing all the measures and activities contained in Plan 3-6-9 which is implemented with solid dynamics. The second one contains the political obstacles that need to be removed in order to be able to continue the integration processes. In that sense, precisely in the first 100 days, we had exceptional progress. First of all, the Government adopted a draft- law on the use of languages by consensus, thus starting the process of closing a very important internal political issue, which forms the basis for stable interethnic relations. Externally, we have achieved a historic Treaty of Good Neighbourly Relations with Bulgaria, thus closing another important issue with our neighbours. In the period to follow, our goal is to close all open issues and to remove all remarks about our progress in the Euro-Atlantic structures, so that the dispute with Greece on the use of the name of our country can remain as the only open issue on our European integration path. This will create conditions for a full focus on this issue both within our political elites, the Greek political representatives and also with our international friends who want to help us close this issue.

In parallel to this process, we started with a new positive approach by opening more direct channels of communication with our southern neighbour. We had an important visit to Athens by our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dimitrov, and later, we had a very successful visit of the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias to Macedonia. Political will in both countries to close this issue has been created, but the processes are being conducted carefully, bearing in mind that, in the past period, and in the interests of daily politics, too many political emotions are tied to this issue. We have agreed on starting the so-called Confidence Building Measures, which should achieve greater communication and rapprochement between the two countries, societies, and the people living there. I believe that we are on the right track and that in the forthcoming period we will have progress in good neighbourly relations with Greece as well, which will also result in progress in our Euro-Atlantic integrations.

EWB: You recently mentioned the development of a plan for better use of IPA funds. How much space do you see for progress in this field, and how much can that support strengthen Macedonia’s European path?

BO: The EU integration process does not mean only reforms, compromises and political adjustment. The EU integration as a process encompasses predominantly respect and adoption towards EU administrative, economic and, in general, standards and rules. That is in a nutshell the realistic and visible integration towards the EU values in one country and that is the part that is relevant for the citizens. In the attempt to meet this part of the European story in Macedonia, one of the key aspects is the absorption of IPA funds granted to the country, serving for adoption, harmonization and enforcement of the EU rules and regulations into the Macedonian society. The IPA absorption rate, in quantitative and qualitative aspect, demonstrates where we, as a Government, as an administration, and ultimately as a country, are and how the EU integration pace is progressing.

In my capacity as National IPA Coordinator, I am focused on two specific issues: 1) to follow the absorption of funds as a great contribution to the current sector reform processes launched in the country and 2) to propose and coordinate the efforts to improve the administration that works specifically on the use of EU funds with a long term goal to be prepared for use of Structural and Cohesion Funds.

Hence a Master plan on IPA is already drafted, in cooperation with the EU Delegation and the Ministry of Finance that should touch upon the two abovementioned aspects. Namely, the plan envisages:

First, regular information to the Government on the most pressing/outstanding issues under IPA I that need to be resolved as a support to the successful implementation of projects/programmes. Second, to assist in introducing and maintaining the sector approach under IPA II, encompassing the finalization of the sector strategies, improving the work of the sector working groups, establishing the Performance assessment framework and liaising with the sustainable IPA system for monitoring, reporting and evaluation, finalizing the programming exercises on annual basis, ensuring the continuous political commitment, supporting the implementation etc. Third, supporting the administrative and absorption capacity. The IPA structure exists since 2006 onwards. The development and evolution of this structure is evident on one hand but the need to further improvement of it is most pressing if we want to build critical administrative mass of experts able to absorb the IPA funds and future Structural and Cohesion Funds upon accession. The plan is currently in a phase of fine-tuning and very soon it will be officially presented and promoted before the members of the Government.

The implementation of this plan will result into improved functioning of the whole IPA structure, increased efficiency of the administration, strengthened compliance with the EU rules for implementation of the assistance, implemented of the sector reforms and improved life of the citizens

As I already mentioned, the main goal is already set and we are working towards it. I think that we have excellent administration, great professionals in the IPA structure, and if we ensure continuous political support and commitment, we will have successful implementation of the IPA Master Plan, that will ultimately, I am convinced, result in increasing the administrative absorption capacity and increased absorption rate of IPA funds.