Skopje, 23 January 2021 (MIA) – The message I would like to pass very strongly is that the EU accession perspective for North Macedonia is clear and uncontested. Last year, we had the Zagreb Summit where this strategic aim was repeated by the leaders. Nothing has changed, says EU Ambassador David Geer.
North Macedonia, by its geography, by its culture, by its history, is a European country, Geer tells MIA in an interview, where he also talks about the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and the EU assistance provided across the region to tackle the consequences from the COVID crisis affecting the economy.
The EU Ambassador voices optimism that the country would move forward through the process of reform to join the EU family.
Following is Ambassador Geer’s interview with MIA in full.
Ambassador Geer, the European Commission has announced it will provide EUR 70 million in grants for the Western Balkans to procure vaccines from the EU countries. However, the process of vaccine procurement has been slow. Despite being promised vaccines from two neighboring member states, North Macedonia will receive shots from Serbia. How soon can the EU provide the assistance?
I think we all recognize that the way to exit the pandemic is to ensure that safe and effective vaccines are accessible for everyone. Europe will not be safe until every region of Europe is safe. We are in this together and because we’re in this together, the EU has stood side by side with the Western Balkans and with the Republic of North Macedonia from the beginning of this crisis.
In the past year, the EU has provided more than a million items of protective medical equipment across the Western Balkans. We’ve helped businesses which face going into the wall due to the economic impact of the COVID crisis and the lockdown. We’ve helped the most vulnerable people who risk losing jobs and people who have difficulties entering the job market.
We’ve also helped governments, the government here in particular, where they face revenue shortages and helping to manage public finance through macro-financial assistance.
Our assistance has been substantial and has been there since the beginning.
In addition, you’d have seen that the European Commission announced a grant of EUR 70 million for the Western Balkans, which is designed to help those countries cover the cost of vaccines provided by the EU member states. That comes in addition to the support that is provided through the COVAX facility.
You ask about vaccinations themselves. Let’s be clear that the process of vaccination is not a race between countries. We’re in it together. Sometimes you’d have seen that the rate of infection is higher here, in the Western Balkans than in the EU, and conversely, as we see at the moment, the rate of infection is higher in the EU than in the Western Balkans. I’m sure that you, the listeners and viewers, are very much aware of the enormous pressure the EU member states are facing at the moment as they are rolling out vaccine campaigns against the background of a virus which is accelerating in the infection rate due to the mutant variety of the COVID-19 virus.
Nevertheless, despite all of this difficult context, the European Union states have said that they will provide vaccines. When will these exactly come – yesterday, the President of the European Commission in Brussels said that she hoped these would come as soon as possible.
What I can say is that the Commission is working with the member states to organize this, but I can’t give you a precise date. But, I will say again that this is an example of the support we are providing. We have been here from the beginning. This crisis will have lasted soon a year and it will extend further.
I think the message to you is that we are here from the beginning, throughout, and in the future, including through the vaccines.
Lack of vaccines contributes to growing mortality, time is running out and the COVAX mechanism doesn’t seem to be functioning although it is well-designed. Is it yet another proof that the EU isn’t functioning quickly in crises, including the pandemic?
No, I don’t think so at all. The European Union has provided by far the largest assistance to the Western Balkans – 3.3 billion across the region at every different stage and will continue to do that. It has made commitment to provide vaccines to the Western Balkans as well. That moment is there, but it takes time to roll this out.
The Commission President is hoping this will be delivered as soon as possible.
The EU has approved an extensive package of macro-financial assistance for the Western Balkans, including North Macedonia, in the midst of the pandemic. It included also medical equipment. Should we expect additional assistance to tackle the consequences caused by COVID-19 affecting the economy?
Yes, absolutely. It is again an example of that overwhelming support the EU us providing here. You’d have seen the extensive discussions that had taken place last year within the EU member states looking at how to put together a recovery package so that the economic impact of the COVID pandemic can be addressed. During those discussions, the EU did not forget the Western Balkans. On the contrary. They put in place a very substantial offer to the Western Balkans designed to assist recovery through investments. That is the Economic and Investment Plan that was presented by the commissioner for enlargement Oliver Varhelyi in October. This consists of an offer of 9 billion euros to the Western Balkans together with the Western Balkans Guarantee Facility, which could leverage loans up to 20 billion euros.
What would be this used for? The aim would be to support investments in the Western Balkans, on the one hand, connectivity – investments to develop connectivity, so we have transport and energy, and we also have investments designed to help the Western Balkans be part of the critical transitions, including the green transition and the digital transition.
That offer is on the table. There have been extensive discussions with the government here, including at the end of last year, concerning how to take forward investments through this offer.
I’ll give you a further example of the kind of practical support – we could expect some 200 million euros, they would be available for work on the railway corridor to Bulgaria, the famous Corridor 8, as well as the Skopje wastewater treatment plant.
Ambassador Geer, Portugal’s Foreign Minister said North Macedonia’s EU integration and the holding of the first intergovernmental conference in the first half of the year will be one of the priorities of the country’s EU presidency, adding the country had done its homework and it’s the EU’s turn to deliver. Should we expect that?
Yes, we should. Let’s go back to the events of last year. We had in March a historic decision taken by the EU. 27 member states, all of them, agreed on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
The next steps are to agree on the negotiating framework and the intergovernmental conference, which would actually launch the process.
Those discussions continue in Brussels and indeed, the Portuguese presidency has made this commitment that it will help and take forward this process. In the meantime, what’s important is that North Macedonia together with Bulgaria continue to engage bilaterally to try to find solutions that are acceptable to both and which will allow the situation to move forward.
It’s obvious that the EU’s shortcoming is the inclusion of bilateral disputes in the enlargement process, including the Bulgaria-North Macedonia dispute. Is it an excuse or are these the rules of an organization which chooses its friends?
Let’s look at the rules of the organization. In certain key areas, such as enlargement, the 27 EU member states act on the basis of unanimity. In other areas, it’s not the case, but in this case it is.
Quite simply what it means is that the 27 members need to agree in order to move forward. If you look back at many decisions that have been taken over the years by unanimity, you’ll see that sometimes, this process of unanimity, results in delays and takes more time. I understand that people feel frustrated, that they want to move forward, that they are impatient. But, it’s also important to recognize that the way forward is to continue to engage on these issues.
We have many examples from the past whereby continuing to engage we’ve been able to move forward. I’m optimistic on that.
The Skopje-Sofia case includes interpretation of history, the Czech Republic and Slovakia voiced their objection. Isn’t it dangerous for history to become a membership precondition?
I’m not going to go into details of what has been discussed. What we need to do is focus on what’s important in this case. Two things are really needed. One, Republic of North Macedonia and Bulgaria continue to engage to resolve this issues bilaterally. Secondly, in the meantime, the government here continues to implement and accelerate the reform process.
Why is it important? First of all, it is in the interest of citizens, but secondly, reform and implementation of the EU-related reforms are the fastest way to coming closer and to joining the EU family.
What would be the other option for the Western Balkans? From the geostrategic point of view, it is part of Europe. Is there room for joining organizations other than the EU?
The message I would like to pass very strongly is that the EU accession perspective for Western Balkans, for North Macedonia is clear and uncontested.
Last year, we had the Zagreb Summit where this strategic aim was repeated by the leaders. Nothing has changed.
North Macedonia, by its geography, by its culture, by its history, is a European country. It has important deep economic and trading ties with the European Union, by far its largest partner. Its Euro-Atlantic strategic orientation remains in place.
I come back again to the decision that was taken last March by the 27 member states to open accession negotiations. This is the direction forward and this is the way we are going.
Are other alternatives, like the European Economic Area, possible or are other strategies for the region being prepared?
I don’t want to talk about plan Bs, there are no plan Bs. The goal is accession to the European Union. As I’ve said, the leaders of the EU have consistently repeated the European perspective of the Western Balkans. I personally am very optimistic that we will move forward and that through the process of reform, North Macedonia will become part of the European Union family.
Neda Dimova Prokikj
Photos by Darko Popov
Video by Aslan Vishko