Experiments done with monkeys have shown that primates have an inherent sense of justice. Whenever a monkey wasn’t paid the same wage (a banana) as a fellow monkey for the same work, it started being destructive and rebellious. Now, if monkeys understand this principle so well, imagine the reactions of human beings.

As many times before, the Western Balkan states have been a fertile ground for a number of experiments, some more successful than others. Very often, when the implementation of said experiments was derailed, it was somehow boiled down to the “culture”, “identity”, “centuries-old animosities”, otherwise known as synonyms for social scientists who are lazy at their work.

One of the great catchphrases of the European Union has been the one of “the stick and the carrot”. Encompassing the idea that the EU will act as an objective arbitrator who will be able to reward progress and punish misconduct, it was meant to be an inspiration for future EU member states to follow the rules. It was also meant to show the EU’s own dedication and respect of liberal democratic values. However, as any bad high school teacher knows, one’s integrity is strongly linked to one’s track record.

As a European Federalist, I am frustrated with the EU and mad with myself for not being able to praise the EU’s track record, especially in the Western Balkans. As progress reports over the years have shown, Brussels is more than delighted to look the other way at serious cases of state capture and lack of democratic accountability. In some cases, it still does.

When North Macedonia was going through the most intense months of state capture, the EU called for “stability”. It took a deep political crisis, the risking of the lives of a number of brave individuals and months of protests for Brussels to realize how one’s attitude doesn’t fit its values or the reality in the country. The European stick remained a mystery, replaced by an American fist as so many times before.

This year’s North Macedonia progress report by the European Commission seems to be closer to reality. I’ll be a true optimist and hope they’ve learned their lesson. It highlights the continuous improvement of many areas, with the key word being “continuous”. As with any reform, only an ongoing, sustained effort can bring significant change.

The Report praises the improvements in the judicial sector, the reform of intelligence services (stressing the cooperation with NATO), the legal framework for the protection of fundamental rights, as well as the fight against corruption. Taken all together, it spells out the dismantling of the state capture perpetrated by the previous government led by Nikola Gruevski.

It also points to the improvement of the media climate and freedom of expression, as well as the involvement and consultation of the civil society. However, the crown jewel of the report is reserved for the resolution of one of the longest-standing bilateral disputes in the Balkans and the agreement that ended it. The Prespa Agreement is rightfully hailed as historic, and it has given Brussels a shining new example of what is hoped for from other candidate countries.

This is not to say that the improvement is homogenously stellar. The report does mention the persistent problems in the public administration and certain, less-than-transparent appointments. Despite efforts, corruption is still deemed a serious problem on all levels. And perhaps most worryingly of all, the composition of public spending has worsened, and the reforms introduced are not deemed structural enough to ensure significant improvements in the upcoming period.

The Report has been a welcomed confirmation of the successes of the government so far and has pointed to the areas that need further reforms. However, this will only make sense if the EU is prepared to play its part as well. In other words, it’s time to pull out “the carrot”.

In June of 2018, the Council set a one-year target for the start of negotiations with North Macedonia, if the needed reforms have been completed. The Commission just confirmed that the reforms have been completed in this year’s Progress Report. The start of negotiations should and could start this summer.

The Gaullist approach to EU politics that some member states have chosen is very destructive and could have long-term consequences. If the EU can’t deliver on its promises when a country is hitting all the benchmarks, what message is being sent to other countries? On the other hand, the start of negotiations doesn’t mean that the country will satisfy the conditions for becoming a member in the near future (or until the end of the mandate, as some politicians prefer to think).

The negotiations with North Macedonia should start because the alternative is too grim to even consider. As in the case of the Southern enlargement, what’s at stake is the democratic future of North Macedonia, as well as those of the other countries in the region.

And the negotiations could start tomorrow, because it’ll neither mean that accession will happen soon, nor that it will somehow endanger further integration. There is absolutely no proof that enlargement interferes with the strengthening of European institutions, except for in the minds of those who would like to leverage accession as a political tool.

When we protested in the streets of Skopje against the regime of Gruevski, one of our main chants was „Нема правда, нема мир“ (No justice, no peace). Much like our fellow primates, we knew that we can’t remain calm until justice is restored. North Macedonia has done its part of the assignment and all EU member states have to do is reward us for it.

Give us an ‘A’ and let us continue the work we’ve been doing. Pull out the carrot and let’s make some carrot cake. Time to negotiate.