This month, Macedonia has completed the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, renaming itself to the Republic of North Macedonia. Now that the one of the most important hurdles to EU membership is seemingly out of the way, what is lying ahead? We talked to Alojz Peterle, Member of the European Parliament from Slovenia and chair of the EP’s Delegation to the Joint Parliamentary Committee with the country.

European Western Balkans: In your previous interview for our portal in December 2017, you refrained from assessing the reform efforts of the current Government of North Macedonia due to the short time it had spent in power. Can you evaluate its work this time, with everything that has happened in between?

Alojz Peterle: Since our last interview, the current government has been able to resolve the decades-long dispute with Greece over the name of the country. The agreement was achieved through difficult negotiations and sensitive concessions, which were and remain neither simple nor easy. This is significant because it opens many doors for the country, especially in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration. The process for NATO membership is underway as national parliaments are currently ratifying the membership accords, a process that should be concluded within the year. Also, we can anticipate accession negotiations will open with North Macedonia in June of this year now that Greece will no longer present a veto in the Council. These are two accomplishments that are well deserved by a country that has been in the waiting room for far too long.

EWB: Rightfully so, the signing and the subsequent ratification of the Prespa Agreement has overshadowed every other aspect of Government’s policy. Now that the process is mostly finalised, which are the next areas that deserve its focus? What are the most pressing issues?

AP: While a significant accomplishment in itself, the process of approving and implementing the Prespa agreement has diverted nearly all of the political energy in the country for the better part of a year. Now that this chapter has closed, the country should return to the process of reforms with the same vigour and dedication demonstrated during negotiations. In spite of the name agreement, there has been little progress with regard to the independence of the judiciary, concerns over the freedom of the press persist and there is still much to be done in the fight against corruption. A government dedicated to the rule of law must be able to focus on more than one issue at a time.

EWB: The Joint Parliamentary Committee between EU and North Macedonia has encountered serious problems during this term of the European Parliament – there were no sessions between December 2015 and February 2018. Can we expect the relationship between the two parliaments to become more stable and productive in the future?

AP: We were unable to organize a meeting of the JPC for over two years because of many reasons from parliamentary boycotts to disputed elections and coalitions. There has been no problem on the side of Brussels, in fact we have patiently waited for the end of these internal disagreements. If all parties continue to demonstrate political maturity and rather than relying on boycotts and other destructive methods as political tools, I see no reason why the JPC should not be able to continue meeting in a regular format, resulting in constructive dialogue on progress and reforms. One thing should be clear to all candidate countries: they should not export their problems to the EU. We have far enough of our own at the moment to serve as arbitrator for new members.

EWB: Do you think that North Macedonia, which has been an EU candidate since 2005, can complete its accession process before some other countries in the region that have already opened their negotiations?

AP: The accession process is not a competition, it is about implementing reforms that protect the rule of law and guarantee a better future for citizens. Focusing on which country is “winning” introduces a discourse that incentivises reforms, rather than emphasizing their implementation as the ultimate goal of European integration. I am optimistic about what North Macedonia will be able to achieve now that the name dispute is settled and I hope we have this same optimism for the broader region.

EWB: As a Member of the European Parliament, do you think the elections in May could lead to change in EU’s enlargement policy?

AP: To put it frankly, pro-enlargement will not be a significant part of any political platform in the upcoming European elections, aside from perhaps those parties that aim at degrading and devaluing the European project through spreading fear regarding new membership. However, I do hope that the momentum we have recently witnessed will continue into the next mandate and that the EU will begin to deliver on promises as the region continues to implement reforms. If we expect consistency and reliability from our Western Balkan partners, we should be prepare to act in the same manner and honour our side of the agreement. To bring the countries of this region in as members would be a completion of the European project as they are historically, geographically and culturally part of Europe.