The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said on October 30 in Skopje that she is confident that negotiations on the "fundamentals’ cluster" with North Macedonia could start this year, though she acknowledged the need for constitutional changes for this to happen.
Von der Leyen’s visit to Skopje was the first stop in her tour of the Western Balkans countries, moving on later in the day to the Kosovan capital Pristina. Top EU officials have increased their attention to the EU-aspiring region since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which raised fears Moscow could exploit existing conflicts to destabilise the region.
During a joint news conference with PM Dimitar Kovacevski in North Macedonia's capital, on the first leg of her Balkan tour, von der Leyen underscored the country's status as a sovereign state with the authority to make its own decisions. However, she encouraged all parties to seize the moment and support the constitutional adjustments essential for the start of the second phase of negotiations with the EU and the opening of clusters.
In July 2022, North Macedonia started the initial phase of negotiations with the EU with the launch of the screening process. However, to begin the process of opening chapters, it is imperative for North Macedonia to change the constitution to include ethnic Bulgarians. The main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE opposes these changes, but the government coalition of the Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian DUI needs opposition votes in the parliament for the adoption of these changes.
"We aim to open negotiations on the fundamentals' cluster still this year. And I know we can do it. Of course, I am aware of the ongoing work on amending your constitution," she stated.
Kovacevski emphasised during the meeting that North Macedonia should seize the moment and focus on the reform process, considering that the pace at which countries work on the Europeanisation of their societies will determine the dynamics of enlargement.
North Macedonia, already with 50% harmonised legislation with the EU, has achieved the greatest progress in approaching European legislation among all countries in the region, he said.
Von der Leyen arrived in Skopje on October 29 and immediately met President Stevo Pendarovski. Following the meeting with Kovacevski on October 30 they jointly held news conference. Notably, von der Leyen did not have a meeting with the main opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski.
Shared interest in enlargement
Von der Leyen expressed optimism about the current momentum across the European Union and candidate countries, emphasising the shared interest in the enlargement process.
She outlined key initiatives to strengthen economic ties between North Macedonia and the EU, including the €30bn Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. One significant aspect is providing North Macedonia's companies access to key segments of the European Single Market, enhancing economic integration.
Furthermore, she urged the expansion of the Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans to neighbouring countries, highlighting its potential to significantly boost the region's GDP by 10%.
Recognising the challenges of implementing reforms, von der Leyen announced a proposed €6bn package for Western Balkan partners, aimed at supporting both reforms and investments.
The EU Commission put forward an investment package comprising €2bn in grants and €4bn in loans during the Berlin Process summit in Tirana, Albania, held on October 16.
Drawing parallels with the successful NextGenerationEU plan for EU member states, she introduced the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, designed to stimulate economic growth, generate employment opportunities, and facilitate progress towards EU accession.
Appeal to Serbia and Kosovo to normalise relations
Later in the day, von der Leyen called for Kosovo and Serbia to intensify efforts towards normalising their relations during her visit to Pristina.
She urged Pristina to initiate the process for the formation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, while also calling on Belgrade to acknowledge the de facto recognition of Kosovo.
Von der Leyen made these remarks during a joint news conference alongside President Vjosa Osmani, having arrived in Pristina from Skopje.
On October 27, leaders from Germany, France and Italy, and key EU officials also made a collective appeal to Serbia to take substantial steps towards the de facto recognition of Kosovo.
Von der Leyen condemned the violent attacks on September 24 in Banjska, northern Kosovo. She emphasised that such attacks are wholly unacceptable and contradict the core values of the EU.
Turning her attention to Kosovo, she said that as of January 1, Kosovo citizens will have the privilege of visa-free travel to the European Union, aligning them with the rest of the region.
Von der Leyen emphasised that this milestone will play a crucial role in fostering closer ties between the people of Kosovo and the EU.
Von der Leyen said that achieving an open market necessitates a fair and balanced playing field, which entails implementing crucial reforms.
Osmani affirmed that Kosovo is prepared to embark on the next phase "towards a European future". She emphasised that integration into the European Union and Nato is not merely an end goal, but a core driving force influencing the actions of Kosovo's institutions.
Von der Leyen will visit Podgorica and Belgrade on October 31 and will end her Western Balkans tour in Sarajevo on November 1. She previously visited Albania on October 15 where she attended Berlin Process summit in Tirana.