President of the European Council Charles Michel has pushed for an accelerated timeline for candidate countries to join the EU. “Enlargement is no longer a dream,” he said at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia, where leaders from the region gathered. According to Michel, it’s time to move forward. Not long after Michel’s announcement, the Prime Minister of North Macedonia Dimitar Kovačevski said that the Government has adopted a decision to establish a structure for negotiations on EU accession and the goal has been set to join the EU by 2030.
Ever since the country signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement in 2001 and obtained candidate status in 2005, the path to EU accession has been fraught with challenges, delays, and diplomatic obstacles.
The journey toward EU accession for North Macedonia has been marked by both triumphs and setbacks. The Prespa Agreement in 2018, which resolved the longstanding name dispute with Greece, was a significant milestone, paving the way for the country to receive a NATO invitation and reinforcing its commitment to EU integration. Nevertheless, despite these steps, the road ahead remains laden with hurdles that demand careful consideration.
One of the most pressing challenges is the ongoing dispute with Bulgaria. Historical and linguistic issues between the two nations have impeded progress. While the dispute continues to be a significant roadblock, diplomatic efforts are underway to find a resolution.
Intergovernmental Conference on the Accession of North Macedonia in July 2022 marked the official start of negotiations. No other EU candidate country had to wait this long for accession negotiations to begin. Despite the official start of the negotiation process, meaningful discussions have not yet taken place.
Furthermore, the need for North Macedonia to make necessary reforms and demonstrate readiness for EU membership cannot be underestimated. Challenges related to corruption, the rule of law, and the functionality of state institutions persist, requiring sustained efforts to build a stable and transparent democratic system.
“North Macedonia as an early starter in the process having the oldest Stabilisation and Association Agreement in the region in the circumstances of strong political will and strengthened administrative capacity with the support of the EU could be ready for membership by 2028”, says Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje.
Kacarska added that in her opinion, North Macedonia is already relatively well aligned with the EU since its alignment level is comparable to Montenegro which has opened all chapters.
„If one, for a moment, ignores probable administrative and decision-making time-frame limitations to do this on the EU and the Member States side to decide on admitting North Macedonia, one can imagine a possible scenario where a country with similar parameters turns the tables and makes fundamental leaps in achieving necessary standards“, explains Misha Popovikj, Good Governance Program Coordinator at Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis Skopje – IDSCS.
However, Popovikj notes that criminal interests have a firm grip over decision-making across many political parties are significant players in particular economic sectors, and can control judicial outcomes, which makes such a scenario unlikely.
„The Member States will not want to make the mistake of admitting a country without an acceptable level of rule of law twice. So, judicial independence and the prosecution capability are fundamental rather than an end goal“, says Popovikj and added that the end of 2022, and 2023 so far made the partisan leverage over the appointments and accountability of judges and prosecutors particularly obvious.
“Without an efficient rule of law, reformists can neither increase the speed of reforms nor be more ambitious. In such circumstances, the country can achieve benchmarks for legislation change. Still, it will fail to deliver on implementation in cases where power holders will lose business privileges in public procurement, limited competition markets such as energy, application of increased environmental standards, or face other liabilities from improved work of inspectorates, etc.”, says Popovikj.
Popovikj explained that in his opinion he does not see that North Macedonian institutions will be functional in the way citizens imagine the country should function upon entering the EU, however, the current EU Member States will decide on readiness and it is expected for the decision to be political.
“The achievement of the 2030 accession goal is put at risk by the country’s track record of bilateral disputes with its neighbouring EU Member States and is also hindered by the weakened administrative capacity for alignment and enforcement of EU legislation, including productive use of EU funds”, says Kacarska.
Conscious effort would need to be put by the EU, Member States, and the stakeholders in the country for joint work on accession, rather than hindrances, as has been the case in North Macedonia almost for the last decade, explains the EPI director.
“The discussion on gradual sectoral integration has been on the agenda for the last several years, without a clear plan for its realization, despite its potential merits. As a result, we have witnessed various ways in which the concept has been interpreted by the Member States, occasionally the Commission, and governments and stakeholders in the acceding countries”, says Kacarska.
Popovikj explains that such an incentive structure can help reformists deliver tangible change to citizens and improve their position.
“The EU must understand that regardless of the political decision to integrate the candidate countries, weakness in the rule of law can be a detrimental liability for its geopolitical interests. It must decisively push back against the power (and thus conflict) brokers in the Western Balkans. It must also push back on bilateral issues of particular EU Member States, such as Bulgaria, whose demands are increasing the strengths of populists and nationalists”, says Popovikj.
The gradual integration creates pressures for defining strategically what the needs of the countries are thereby reshaping their traditional role from a policy taker to a policy maker of accession which has shown to be rather challenging, believes Kacarska.
“The proposal is still burdened with concerns as to its legal limits and potential modalities of implementation, but we’re all hoping for some more clarity in the upcoming enlargement package as announced”, said the EPI director.
In conclusion, the possibility of accession of North Macedonia to the EU by 2030 remains uncertain, but it is not impossible. The journey has been long and arduous, with multiple obstacles that must be overcome.