On the occasion of his visit to Brussels on Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 April for talks with—among others—the President of the European Council, Charles Michel; High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell; and the Commissioner for Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, the President of the Republic of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski, gave an interview to EUROPE.
The opportunity to take stock of his country’s EU accession negotiations, foreign influences in the Western Balkans,and the possible redrawing of borders in the region (Interview by Camille-Cerise Gessant)
Agence Europe – The negotiation process of North Macedonia is blocked because of a bilateral conflict with Bulgaria (see EUROPE B12618A2). Do you think it could be possible to have a breakthrough soon?
Stevo Pendarovski – We are ready, even today, to restart these negotiations with Bulgaria. But unfortunately, after the elections in Bulgaria, this is still impossible, because the election did not produce a clear winner who might form the government.
We are waiting for the Bulgarian side to identify who is going to speak on their behalf. We would like this to happen as soon as possible.
I also proposed to Charles Michel and Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi to opt for some kind of associate members of the (bilateral) commission between North Macedonia and Bulgaria or people from the European Union, maybe experts in history, historians, for whom we could agree on the names on both sides.
Because the work of the committee is frozen, and it would certainly be useful if we could get someone neutral on board. Otherwise, if we speak alone, the Bulgarians will use and abuse their position within the European Union and we will be outside because they have more leverage. And it is certainly not a level playing field.
The Portuguese Presidency of the EU Council would like the first Intergovernmental Conference to take place before the end of its Presidency at the end of June (see EUROPE B12631A15). Do you think it will not be possible?
Our ambassador speaks almost daily with the Portuguese Presidency. They are in a preparation of some kind of material for an eventual breakthrough, they put some ideas on paper. We haven’t seen anything yet, because they are waiting for the partner on the Bulgarian side, after the elections. They said we are ready to test at least some ideas, which might be helpful.
Some Member States would like to decouple the processes of Albania and North Macedonia (see EUROPE B12596A16). What do you think of this idea?
European integration is a merit-based purpose. If you deliver, and if the European Union judges that you are up to it, you will join the Union. We are not judged collectively.
If Albania delivers after the elections and if we are—because of Bulgarian opposition—not able to reach a compromise, certainly no one reasonable will say ‘oh you should wait for North Macedonia and Bulgaria to resolve that dispute for additional items for months and years’.
I am hopeful that the decoupling is not an issue on the table right now. It may not be in the next few months, but if this drags on with Bulgaria for years, it will be a very legitimate question.
Do your citizens still want North Macedonia to become a member of the EU?
This is becoming slightly, but slowly and steadily the problem, because, especially in the past year with this pandemic, the whole region has been the subject of an influence by extra regional countries.
And if you leave, if you are not present in sufficient numbers, then someone else takes your place. And in the past year, especially, we have seen attempts by third countries, countries outside of the region with an agenda that is not so compatible with Europe’s, to penetrate into the region and diffuse their ideas
Citizens are not seeing enough of Europe. Some of them, still not a high proportion of the people but some slight portions, are starting to look to other directions.
So, for you, the EU did not do enough to help you in the context of the Covid-19 crisis?
I wouldn’t like to criticize too harshly the European Union, but I’m simply confirming the mere fact. It is true that in the past year, the EU has not been as present as it used to be before the pandemic started.
Because of the pandemic, everybody started to care only about its own citizens, which is of course the first task for each national leadership, but some other countries outside the area of Euro-Atlantic integration have been greatly expanding their presence in the Western Balkans.
Last year, we have been the subject or the object of that heavy political disinformation campaign that ‘Europeans are not delivering that, European Union is slightly slowly solving that, cohesion within the Western Alliance is not on the level it used to be before. Then why not look for alternatives?’
I cannot think of this level of propaganda against Western values in the past 10, 15 years, probably never. And we are not so resilient towards these kinds of hybrid threats as more mature democracies.
What should the EU do to be more present?
Just be more present. It’s a good sign that the Commissioner for Enlargement, next week, will be physically present in all six Western Balkans capitals when the first doses of vaccines from the EU Solidarity Fund are delivered.
I also said to Charles Michel they should include us more in the Conference of the Future of Europe. It's not enough just to say ‘we have opened a website and you can convey your messages’. I asked him to invite not politicians from the region, but citizens. Just an example: with the Erasmus exchanges, we have thousands of young people being everywhere in the EU and learning firsthand European values. It is not a taboo for young people. It should be multiplied, taken to another level.
A few days ago, a non-paper supposedly from the Slovenian Prime Minister was revealed, according to which it would be possible to change the borders of your region. What do you think of this idea?
Two years ago, I was the first one in the region from the politicians who said publicly—and it was criticised by some regional leaders—that changing the borders means war and a bloody war.
Even the attempts for the slightest changes to the borders, for a few meters, are not possible because the wounds from the latest series of Balkan Wars in the 1990s are still with us.
This is a very anachronistic idea for the 21st century. What we need to do is to say publicly and loudly that these ideas will never be discussed. They are simply not a part of the European discourse, of European values.