North Macedonia suffered a severe setback when EU leaders failed to set a date to start accession negotiations at a European Council meeting last October. However, the country’s interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski said in an interview with bne IntelliNews that this “injustice” could be reversed with a positive decision as early as March — the month before North Macedonia’s citizens are due to vote in a snap general election.
Speaking on the sidelines of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Western Balkans Investment Summit in London on February 24, Spasovski said he believed that “optimism has returned in our country”.
“After the decision of the European Council in October there was a big disappointment among the citizens and the government, but we have done everything possible in the meantime so that this injustice is rectified. We made efforts to carry out reforms so we could provide positive arguments for the EU member countries to give us a positive decision,” the prime minister said.
Stressing the unhappiness widely felt in North Macedonia — which has carried out numerous politically difficult steps, including changing the country’s name — he added: “The October decision of the European Council was considered by many as historic mistake and this is the time to correct this historic mistake.”
French President Emmanuel Macron was the key figure who blocked the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania at the October Council meeting, insisting that there must be reforms to the negotiation process and internal EU reforms before any decision is made.
EU leaders were more inclined to allow North Macedonia to start EU accession talks, as it is regarded as better prepared than Albania, and after it had made painful concessions by changing the country’s name and thereby solving a long-standing dispute with Greece. However, France, Germany and Italy were against treating Skopje and Tirana separately.
This caused great disappointment both in the two candidate countries and among EU officials, including then European Council president Donald Tusk, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn. Tusk commented at the time that the “overwhelming majority” had been in favour of the start of talks, but a unanimous decision was required.
The decision was particularly devastating in North Macedonia, which had seen a strong attempt to reinvigorate the accession process after a new government led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) came to power in 2017.
Before that, the country had been an accession candidate since December 2005, but had been unable to make progress due to the dispute with Greece, as Athens had objected to the country name “Macedonia”, which is also the name of a Greek province. With no prospect of progress towards membership in sight under the former government led by the conservative nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, Macedonia along with other Western Balkans countries had started backsliding on democracy related reforms.
Shortly after coming to power the new SDSM-led government under then prime minister Zoran Zaev struck a deal with Greece, the Prespa Agreement that was signed in 2018, under which the country’s name was changed to North Macedonia, which opened the way for accession to both the EU and Nato. Getting the deal approved, which required support from some opposition MPs to put together a two-thirds majority in parliament, was another struggle.
Immediately after the European Council meeting, Zaev stepped down as prime minister to open the way for a snap general election, and in January was replaced by Spasovski at the head of an interim government that includes ministers from opposition VMRO-DPMNE alongside those appointed by the SDSM and its coalition partners.
Efforts to prepare for EU accession negotiations have continued. In one critical step the parliament endorsed the prosecution law required by the EU on February 16, a few hours before MPs voted to dissolve the assembly.
“We did everything; now it’s the turn for the EU to deliver … there is no alternative for us other than EU membership,” Spasovski told bne IntelliNews.
“We have invested a lot of effort to achieve economic improvement, also to close all the open issues with our neighbours, showing we have good neighbourly relations and that we as North Macedonia have the capacity to be a modern European democracy,” he added.
“We want to have a clear European perspective as future EU members. The signal has been positive but we are cautious when it comes to talking about this, for us would be very important if this happened in March.”
The indications are currently that EU leaders will approve the start of accession talks for both countries before the EU-Western Balkans summit due to take place in Zagreb in May. The European Commission has been drawing up a new methodology, which Spasovski anticipates will make the process stronger and more effective.
A March decision on negotiations would undoubtedly give the SDSM a boost in the April 12 general election, which Spasovski says will be a vote where “citizens will have to decide which path they want to take”.
“I believe that the citizens will recognise [these] open perspectives we are aiming for to achieve the strategic goals of our country. I do expect that the citizens will take the decision to continue along the path of a clear vision for our future,” he says.
The latest poll conducted by media group Clip Media in cooperation with the Institute Stratum R&D and published on February 26 shows that North Macedonia’s citizens have more positive expectations for the future if the SDSM stays in power. 31.4% of respondents said the situation would improve if the SDSM stays in power, and 24.9% said it would be better if VMRO-DPMNE comes to power.
43% of those polled stated that SDSM leader Zoran Zaev deserves to be prime minister, while 31% supported VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski.
The last general election, in late 2016, resulted in a parliament where VMRO-DPMNE was the largest party but it failed to put together a majority, and a government was instead formed by the SDSM — but only after months of negotiations and a violent attack on the parliament by nationalist protesters.
Commenting on North Macedonia’s future prospects, Spasovski speaks of the need to ensure peace and stability in order to achieve economic growth.
“We need security but also political stability. Becoming a Nato member ensures security in the long run, and that is the basis for the political stability in the country,” he says. North Macedonia is set to become Nato's 30th member in the near future, with only Spain still to ratify the treaty on its accession.
Meanwhile, “becoming an EU member opens a big market and also improves the economic perspectives. This is evident from the situation in the countries in the region who became EU members … they had serious positive economic benefits.”
According to figures cited by Spasovski in the interview, North Macedonia became more attractive for foreign direct investment (FDI) immediately after it resolved its open issues with Greece and signed a Friendship Agreement with Bulgaria. In the two and a half years after the new government came to power in June 2017, Macedonia has received €730mn of FDI, industrial activity increased and unemployment fell, and the GDP growth rate has risen from -1.8% in 2017 to 3.6%.
The next step of starting EU accession negotiations would bring to North Macedonia a share of funds and grants from Brussels, but Spasovski says: “also goes hand in hand with values and rights and all the aspects of European values”.
Starting accession negotiations, he adds, would lead to discussions “that would ensure real reforms in our institutions in North Macedonia and that would be equally beneficial for our citizens and also for the region in general”.