The day I write this text (11 October) is the day when the Macedonian people celebrate their statehood and struggle for independence. It is one of the biggest national holidays, known as the Day of the People’s Uprising Against Fascism. It is also the day that I analyse the annual European Commission report on North Macedonia, which provides an assessment of the reforms made by the country on its journey to become part of the European family.
The North Macedonia 2020 Report came as no surprise for Macedonian citizens. In March of this year, the European Commission already provided an update on the implementation of the reforms in the country, covering the period from the Council Conclusions of June 2018 to March 2020. The update builds upon the findings and recommendations of the 2019 enlargement package while acknowledging the delivery of tangible and sustainable results in the key policy areas.
This was a pretext for the long-awaited (11 long years since the first recommendation, and multiple postponements since the resolution of the name issue) decision of the Council of the EU, endorsed by the European Council, to open accession negotiations for North Macedonia’s membership in the European Union. Given these circumstances, hardly anyone could expect anything less from the Commission than a recognition to “continue to advance the EU reform agenda in an inclusive manner”.
Commissioner Várhelyi, in his speech at the Macedonian parliament, mentioned that the “country has maintained a steady pace of progress and further delivered on key areas of the rule of law, including the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime”. North Macedonia was the first stop on his Western Balkan tour.
Following Montenegro, and prior to Serbia, North Macedonia organised early parliamentary elections on July 15. The EU annual report takes note of the OSCE/ODIHR assessment that the “elections were generally well run and the campaign was genuinely competitive” while providing a critique on the “substantial revisions of the legal framework including government decrees”. However, there is no word of the cyber-attack on the State Electoral Commission’s website on the election day.
The Parliament is pointed out as the institution where constructive political dialogue is taking place, which led to the continuous adoption of EU-related laws with the support of the opposition, including the Rules of Procedure. The participation of all parties in the ‘Jean Monnet Dialogue’ with the European Parliament is acknowledged. What is worrying is the predictability of the law-making process. Out of 86 laws (including 22 in regular legislative procedure and 11 ratifications), a significant proportion were adopted using the shortened procedure, a majority upon the proposal of Members of Parliament. In 2019, 61.6% of the legislation was adopted using this procedure, which is a threefold increase compared to 2018. By doing so, the MPs are effectively bypassing the regulatory impact assessment and are decreasing the venues for participation by stakeholders and genuine democratic debate.
In regards to the independence of the judiciary, the key milestone pointed out in the Report is the adoption of the Law on the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and with it a sustainable continuation of the cases instigated by the Special Prosecutor’s Office. The State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption’s proactive approach, including “cases involving high-level officials from across the political spectrum”, is assessed positively.
The Report mentions the need to improve the “EU integration coordination system for policy measures” in light of the start of the accession talks. This is also expected due to the fact that the established negotiating structures date from before the introduction of the European Commission’s new enlargement methodology. This situation can also be used by the new government to re-establish an efficient, inclusive and sustainable structure for accession negotiations which will remain functional for years to come – resistant to all governmental changes –as has been requested by civil society organisations.
With regard to economic criteria, North Macedonia is at a “good level of preparation in developing a functioning market economy”. However, it is required to do more “to cope with competitive pressures and market forces within the EU”. Although Covid-19 will leave a permanent mark on the economic situation in the country, the Report outlines that it needs to address the structural problems and needs such as skill shortages, the outflow of skilled workers, the education system and labour productivity if it wants to overcome these difficulties better and more swiftly.
The report praises the country for its continued efforts to improve its alignment with EU foreign policy. This is in addition to maintaining good relations with other enlargement countries, as well as implementing bilateral agreements with both Bulgaria and Greece. On this note, it is important to mention that Bulgaria’s insistence on using stricter wording in relation to the implementation of the bilateral agreement in the Negotiation Framework could seriously jeopardise the tremendous efforts of the government in Skopje to finally start the process, those of the current German presidency to organise and host the first intergovernmental session by the end of the year, and finally those of all who believe in the true meaning of European solidarity, the unification of Europe, and the continent’s integrity.