Macedonia was the first Balkan country that has signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in 2001, but it was in status quo position for a long period. In 2005, the European Commission issued a favourable opinion and the Council decided to grant the country candidate status.
Macedonia, in 2009 received a recommendation by the Commission for launching EU accession negotiations, but the name dispute that Macedonia has with Greece was the reason for the deadlocked relations between Macedonia and EU.
Still, at the beginning of 2012, a special instrument was launched by the European Commission, named as High-Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD). The goal of HLAD was to put the EU integration process to the foreground of the Macedonian agenda and give it a new boost.
“The purpose of the HLAD is to inject new dynamism into the EU accession reform process, thereby strengthening confidence and boosting the country’s European prospects. It does not override the standard pre-accession procedure,” it was stated in 2012 European Commission’s Progress Report on Macedonia.
This dialogue does not replace accession negotiations but provides support to the accession process of the country by focusing on key reform priorities. High-Level Accession Dialogue was first mentioned during the visit to Ohrid of European Commission’s President, Jose Manuel Barroso, and EU Enlargement Commissioner, Štefan Füle, when they met with the government representatives. The main aim of that visit was to restart the relations between Macedonia and EU, almost two years from European Commission’s recommendation to start accession negotiations that could not have started because of the name dispute with Greece.
At that time, it was declared that this dialogue is a complementary tool for the acceleration of the accession processes towards the EU, besides the regular procedures for accession. For that purpose, the European Commission has devised the HLAD as a tool to maintain the tempo of reforms and implementation of the National Programme for Adoption of the Acquis (NPAA).
In the absence of the negotiation process, the main fora for discussion and monitoring of reforms were the bodies established under the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) as well as the HLAD, which was established in 2012. As stated in 2013 Progress Report, the HLAD has contributed to progress in most priority areas. Also, it is stated that the progress being made under HLAD will keep the country in good shape until the negotiations begin.
Furthermore, the Macedonian government continued its commitment to the EU accession process mostly through the Dialogue and the implementation of EU-related reforms.
This accession dialogue was interpreted in two ways, as an additional boost for Macedonia, while also as a justification for the status quo position of Macedonia.
In his interview in 2014, Head of Delegation of the EU to Macedonia, stated that “the Dialogue is the bridge to the negotiations that will start one day for sure”.
Despite the will to keep Macedonia on the European path, no meeting of the High-Level Accession Dialogue was held during 2014. With regards to the inter-ethnic situation, trust between the communities was needed to be built, said EC’s Progress Report.
As stated in the HLAD, it covered the following five key issues: freedom of expression, rule of law and ethnic relations, challenges for electoral reform, public administration reform, strengthening the market economy and good neighbourly relations.
At the time when the Dialogue was launched, it was considered as a tool for improvement of the top issues in the country and as an additional help for Macedonian efforts in certain segments that are important both for the country and the European Union. The focus was placed on specific areas that are considered as most vulnerable where more efforts was needed.
Another advantage of the Dialogue was encouraging the state to stay on the European way in spite of many political obstructions. On the other hand, it could be heard that the HLAD was a substitute for opening negotiations, but also that it is needless duplication of areas included in regular reports of the European Commission.
According to the Country Report in 2015, the work under the High-Level Accession Dialogue continued on a new table of targets, complemented by the “Urgent Reform Priorities”. The list of urgent reform priorities to be fulfilled by the Government of Macedonia included the rule of law and fundamental rights, de-politicisation of the public administration, freedom of expression and electoral reform.
Even though the HLAD was set in 2012, Macedonia was facing many crises in the previous years that stopped it from EU integrations even through the Dialogue. Likewise, no meeting was held in 2016 under the High-Level Accession Dialogue and there was little progress on meeting its targets, as announced in Commission’s Country Report.
The relations between Macedonia and the EU in the period of 2010 to 2016 could be described as a simulation of EU accession.
The crisis in Macedonia culminated with post-election crises when Macedonia was on the edge of civil war. In April, nationalist protesters stormed the parliament, attacking Zoran Zaev and other MPs. In the period between the early parliamentary elections in December last year and the establishment of the new government this May, Macedonian society was strongly divided.
However, the new pro-Western government in Skopje of the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev focused on speeding up the process of joining NATO and EU. Previously, former nationalist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski built his politics on nationalism and had refused to meet Greek demands regarding the name dispute.
However, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikola Dimitrov, recently called on Greece to recognize the new reality in the country and support its bid to join the EU and NATO that would require overcoming the dispute over the country’s name.
“We expect and we hope for help and support for European integration,” said Dimitrov after meeting his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotzias. It is encouraging for Macedonia to hear that the dispute will be solved in the first half of 2018, as announced by the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Recently, President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker during the joint press conference with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and the EU Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, stated that Macedonia made a significant progress.
“The progress is significant and I want to say that what we think of especially important are the relations with the neighbours including the meetings with Greece that will take place this month,” said Juncker, and he also stressed that he expects the reformatory processes to continue with the reforms in the intelligence services, judiciary and the public administration.
It remains to be seen if Macedonia will finally get the date for opening the negotiation process instead of the current High-Level Accession Dialogue.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States