The first half of this year is full of events with a potential to significantly influence the EU perspective of the Western Balkans – from the revision of the decision on North Macedonia and Albania and the new enlargement methodology, all the way to Zagreb Summit in May. Several significant elections will also take place in 2020, and the first country to hold them will be North Macedonia, on 12 April. We talked about the interplay between the events in Brussels, Strasbourg and Skopje and how much can they impact the enlargement with the Standing Rapporteur of the European Parliament for North Macedonia Ilhan Kyuchyuk (Renew).

European Western Balkans: North Macedonia is approaching an early election, results of which are unpredictable. What are your expectations from the new government with regards to EU accession process and regional relations?

Ilhan Kyuchyuk: I would expect the new government to continue the progress that the country is demonstrating. North Macedonia laid a solid basis for that by leading important reforms with view of its membership to the EU. The country agreed to heavy compromises, showing political courage and vision in the name of the good neighbourly relations, thus proving numerous times that it belongs to the European family. It is exactly for those reasons that the upcoming elections bare a special importance and to a great degree, they will frame the country’s European perspective.

EWB: All over the region, opposition parties have severely criticized the electoral conditions, and some are even boycotting elections in their countries. This does not seem to be the case in North Macedonia. How would you assess the ability of the country to hold free and fair elections, especially compared to its recent past?

IK: Indeed thanks to the Przino agreement nowadays North Macedonia differs in that respect to its neighbours. However, people should not forget how fragile the democracies of the Western Balkans are and how difficult it is to reach a political compromise. And compromise is particularly necessary when the goal is the European Union. Joining the EU must be a national cause, rather than the intention of one political party or another. It requires all the politicians and civil society to set aside their differences and focus on the common cause, and it always goes through conducting fair and democratic elections.

EWB: As the Standing Rapporteur, have you had the opportunity to assess the readiness of North Macedonia to align itself with EU rules once the negotiating process begins? What will be the most challenging areas?

IK: I am now a Member of the European Parliament for the second term and since 2014 I have been working actively on the matters of the Western Balkans. How quickly a country aligns its legislation with the legislation of the EU depends on its government and the speed of the reforms. As a person coming from a country that not too long ago had to go through the accession negotiations, but also as an MEP, who is observing the region, I know that the challenges for the countries are identical. Judicial reform, the rule of law and the fight against corruption are always a stumbling block to a candidate country.

EWB: Renew Europe Group recently held a meeting with Western Balkan Ambassadors. What is your group’s position on EU enlargement?

IK: Our group has always pursued а course of clear and consistent enlargement policy, as one of the most successful EU policies. We stand strong for the European perspective of the region and this explicit position was reaffirmed during our meeting with the six ambassadors of the Western Balkan countries. Next week we will also be holding a high-level conference in Brussels, on the 5th and 6th of February. Initiatives like these give us the opportunity to exchange views on the accession process.

One of the mistakes the EU made in recent years when it comes to the Western Balkans is that it often failed to pay attention to the signals coming from the region. The accession process has been seen as an act that is imposed by the EU, which the countries must only strictly execute on a point-by-point basis. We need to hear the perspective of the Western Balkan countries for further developing the accession process as well, as they are underrepresented in the daily debate on EU enlargement.

EWB: Does Renew Europe find it hard to adopt a joint position towards opening the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, since the party of President Macron also belongs to the group?

IK: Of course, the French delegation has its proposals. We should not simply dismiss them, just because we do not like the way they were presented. In my opinion, we should look at them in detail, because for their most part they are not devoid of political logic. Meanwhile, other countries came up with proposals for reform too. Within the Renew Europe group, I have the honour of chairing a Working group on the Western Balkans and Enlargement policy, and while we await for the proposal of a methodology by the European Commission, we already have an active debate on how to reform the negotiation process, but the direction is always the same. Full integration into the European family of both North Macedonia and Albania and all the other Western Balkan countries. We will shortly present our position on enlargement policy.

EWB: Do you think that the positive decision on this issue will be made by the EUWestern Balkans Summit in May, as many expect?

IK: We have always been telling the Western Balkan countries that the EU is strict but fair. They have been convinced in its strictness. Now is time to convince them of its fairness. Both the European Parliament and the European Commission have repeatedly stated that the Republic of North Macedonia has fulfilled all the criteria for opening the negotiations with the EU. The discrepancy came from the Council, because of the way decisions are made there.

For me, this matter became a purely political one, being defined by the political trends and attitudes in the Member States and not on the basis of the results achieved by the candidate country. Yes, some challenges still exist and there is a need for reforms in certain sectors, but the question is, for how long would the EU continue presenting an encouraging picture of the situation but at the same time – keep demonstrating passivity in the region? Continuing this policy of providing positive messages, but without concrete action, will only lead to a further decline in the sentiment in favour of the EU and discourage the truly pro-European people. Therefore, I believe that we can no longer compromise and must correct the mistake that the Council made in October 2019.

EWB: European Parliament recently adopted a resolution stating that Conference on the Future of Europe should seeks ways of involving representatives of the EU candidate countries in discussions. Are there any indicators of what this involvement could look like?

IK: My fellow MEPs and I worked on this matter and I am really pleased that the resolution indeed included a text, calling for the inclusion of representatives of the candidate countries in the discussions on the future of Europe. The regulation and the role of all the countries are yet to be shaped, but we cannot talk about the future of the EU and its reform without looking at enlargement too. Countries that want to become part of the European family deserve to participate in this debate because their citizens will also be living in our future common home.

Our concrete proposal will be – every country that has the status of an EU candidate country to be provided with an observer status in the Conference on the future of the EU.