Recently published European Commission Report on North Macedonia has shown that the country has generally achieved good progress during the past year, and recommended opening of accession talks. The ball is now in the court of EU governments, and the decision will seemingly have to wait for several additional months, unlike NATO accession, which is moving at a fast pace.

We talked about these issues and how they have shaped North Macedonia with its Defence Minister Radmila Šekerinska during the GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava.

European Western Balkans: North Macedonia has become a rare piece of good news coming from the Western Balkans in the past several years. The recent European Commission Report showed that North Macedonia is a country with progress in almost every field EU is interested in. How did the Government of North Macedonia achieve this?

Radmila Šekerinska: With a lot of hard work and tough political choices. We have inherited a country that was qualified as a captured state on all the key democratic values: media, rule of law, checks and balances. We have not started accession talks years ago because of the name issue – but in the meantime, the situation has deteriorated so much that many people within the EU and within the country were wondering whether the basic political criteria are met.

We have moved from a situation of a captured state into a shining example in the Balkans in practically less than two years because we knew that the country has no more time to lose. Three lost decades are behind us and the time has really come to act.

We have had that spirit both when dealing with domestic grievances and with regional challenges, especially the bilateral issues with Bulgaria and Greece.

With regards to the domestic reforms, they were not implemented just because of the EU and NATO. We have managed to secure a government majority and gain the support of many individuals in the country because they demanded change. So, in a way, the reforms in the area of media, rule of law, checks and balances, professional institutions, were first and foremost our responsibility to the voters.

The real difference came with the agreements with Bulgaria and Greece on issues that looked insurmountable – but what it took was clear political determination and will on behalf of the three countries, three prime ministers and their governments.

EWB: Are there issues that are not solved yet?

: Of course – we are not talking about the entry into the European Union, we are talking about starting accession talks i.e entering the track that has shaped and transformed the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Entering that track means that that we will not sleep – that there will be more work in the years to come. But, with the assistance, the guidance and sometimes with the criticism of the European Commission, which, in the case of our country, it works very well.

We do need to work more on the rule of law and the creation of strong and independent institutions. The legal framework for the judicial reform is there, but, actually, our citizens need to see change on the daily level. This will be our focus in the future.

EWB: You were in charge of the European integration process of North Macedonia years ago, when North Macedonia became the first Western Balkan candidate country, before Croatia. Where are we now, what are the next steps of the Government? Will you be able to catch up with the frontrunners?

: An assessment was done by the European Stability Initiative, so not a think tank from North Macedonia, not a think tank from the region, but a really respected European think tank that covers the region, on where we stand in terms of preparedness for membership. Their conclusion was that North Macedonia is better prepared and had a slightly higher ranking than all the other countries – even the ones that are negotiating. That shows that in order to move forward, you have to have both – hard work of domestic reforms and political support to enter a demanding process.

I do believe that, because we are a small country, it is a curse sometimes – you cannot raise the awareness like some other countries – but it is also a blessing – if there is political will, if there are determination and courage, you can change things more quickly. What our country has shown, not only now but also after the 2001 conflict when I was elected as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of EU Affairs, is that it takes a few years, not decades, to show the tendencies.

But then, the big negative lesson, also from our experience, is that small countries risk a lot when they miss the opportunities. When the door opens, if you are not prepared, they can close it, and you can be stuck for a decade. Opportunities are not easily created, and we should not miss them.

EWB: Let’s talk about your portfolio – according to the European Commission’s Report, everything is good in Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy, but what about Macedonian alignment with all restrictive measures of the EU?

: The new government has been rather dedicated to aligning with Common Foreign and Security Policy positions, and we have shown this allegiance even when it comes to difficult cases. That is because we know that our choices are where our values lie. And these values are not just a pin that we will put on our coat that says we are joining EU and NATO.

We really believe that countries are better when they are democratic, we do believe that countries are safer when their media is free, we do believe that our citizens do better if the institutions are not politicized but professional and when the government is held accountable. We do not consider all these things to be just ticking off a box.

There was a time, 5-6 years ago, when many people in our country, but also in the EU, believed that strong men at the helm of a country can be a good thing – that they can prevent crises and guarantee stability. We were the example that you can really corner the media, buy them out and rule with fear and lots of stability. But it turned out that this was shortsighted. At the surface, our former Prime Minister was the strong man of the Balkans. He had the belief that he controls, owns, possesses everything. But all of it was rotten from within. So it took us, several whistleblowers and evidence of large-scale corruption and abuse, to put this pyramid of fear, power, corruption and control to ashes.

That regime did not bring stability and prosperity to North Macedonia. On the contrary, it was a democratic rule, transparency, free media and EU and NATO progress that provided better prospects to the country.

In 2018, the year of our NATO membership invitation, our foreign direct investments quadrupled, and they were double than the best year of Gruevski’s corrupt but very control-driven model. Even for small countries, the undemocratic rule is bad and it brings neither stability nor prosperity.

EWB: According to German media, German federal parliament, Bundestag, failed to discuss the opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, which means that German government will have to wait until September, the end of the summer break. Are you ready for this kind of scenario, not to receive a date for starting negotiations in June?

: There was good news and bad news yesterday – the good news was that the German Bundestag ratified our NATO protocol, which means that the majority of NATO members have already endorsed our membership. However, there was also this discussion on whether the Parliament will be able to assess the two EC Reports (on North Macedonia and Albania) prior to the next EU Council.

There are ongoing consultations on the issue, and we keep reminding everybody in the EU that we have delivered, that we have respected our commitments and that we do expect the same respect for the EU commitments. We have not given any excuse to any country or any politician not to support a positive decision.

We do believe that every delay can harm the process. Rationally speaking, what is a few months to the number of years we have waited – but what we have learned the hard way is that during delays, new circumstances can emerge. And they can further complicate the environment.

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today” – we were taught as children. Having in mind the heavy involvement Germany had in the process, we do expect that they will be interested to invest in a more stable Balkans.

This message will be heard not only in North Macedonia but also in the region – does it pay off to make painful compromises, does it pay off to invest in serious reforms. I have no doubts that domestic reforms were first and foremost for our citizens, but there was a certain equilibrium between the expectations from us and the expectations that we had – this “carrot and stick” policy should continue to work, because it has been productive.

EWB: You mentioned NATO – you are now participating in the ministerial meetings. How does this experience impact your country? Are the ministry and the army of North Macedonia ready for NATO membership?

: Yes. Based on our assessment, but also based on the discussion that we have had during the accession talks with NATO, we are prepared to assume the responsibilities. We have been fighting, we have been the part of NATO missions in the worst possible circumstances, on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have worked very hard on our defence reform, we have increased defence spending two years in the row. Our army is prepared. This is why the invitation came immediately after the Prespa Agreement, this is why the accession talks lasted only few months, and this is why ratification has moved very quickly.

EWB: How do you see the current relations in the region? North Macedonia held joint government sessions with almost all countries, but one is visibly missing – how would you comment on your relationship with Serbia right now?

: We are the only country in the region that has no open issues with any of the neighbours. We have dealt with all border challenges, we have agreements on all of them, and we have tried very hard in the last two years not to focus only on the problems but really to engage in serious regional cooperation with all of our allies. We have had joint government sessions with several neighbours, we will soon have a joint government session with Kosovo, and I am looking forward to having a joint government session with Serbia because I think that the two countries share a lot of similar interests. Having in mind the economic, the commercial and also political ties, I think the time has come to move forward.