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EU Ambassador: No way back, negotiating train left the station with you on board

EU member states decided to open negotiations. There is no way back, so a negotiating train has left the station with you on board, EU Ambassador Samuel Žbogar tells MIA.

Skopje, 29 March 2020 (MIA) – EU member states decided to open negotiations. There is no way back, so a negotiating train has left the station with you on board. The speed of the train depends on two conductors, on two sides. Negotiations will go as fast as you will be able to negotiate, to implement the requirements and to reform. I hope that all political forces will be able to unite around the strategic goal of speeding-up negotiations, EU Ambassador Samuel Žbogar says in an interview with MIA.

To find out more about when the first intergovernmental conference could take place, the new methodology and his advice on how to close the negotiations as soon as possible, and also about the youth migration issue and the current situation involving the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU assistance that will be allocated to the country to fight the new coronavirus, read MIA’s full interview with Žbogar below:

We were given the green light for start of accession negotiations after 15 years, but some argue that there is no concrete date. What’s your opinion on the matter?

First, I think we should pause and appreciate what has happened this week. After so many years, so many recommendations, after the disappointing outcomes of the European Council of June 2018, June 2019 and October 2019, Member States finally agreed to start negotiations with North Macedonia. This is not just “yet another EU decision”. This is “the decision” for the start of accession negotiations. There are no further conditions and I want to congratulate citizens of the country for their patience, determination and commitment to the European idea.

As with the other negotiating countries before you, there will be several steps before the first intergovernmental conference can be held. The European Commission who will negotiate with you in the name of the Member States needs a mandate for negotiations, which we call a negotiating framework. The European Commission will prepare a draft negotiating framework, which will also need to integrate the new methodology. We expect this to be ready by June. Then it is up to Member States to discuss, negotiate and adopt the document. Once this is done the first intergovernmental conference, which marks the beginning of the negotiating process will be scheduled.

But to repeat again, member states decided to open negotiations. There is no way back, so a negotiating train has left the station with you on board.

European Parliament President David Sassoli has said that MEPs won’t hold meetings in Strasbourg until September this year due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Could the first intergovernmental conference with North Macedonia be postponed as a result?

The Covid-19 pandemic may complicate the process of agreeing on the negotiating framework not least because it creates difficulties for Member States to physically meet in Brussels. These discussions might take a while, not only because of the virus, but also because Member States need to reach agreement on integrating a new methodology into the framework, as well as they need to agree on all elements of the negotiations. For example, with Montenegro the process lasted for around three months, with Serbia much longer.

With the new methodology on the table, when we can expect to become a full-fledged member of the EU? What is your advice for us?

To come back to my reference to the train; I will say that the speed of the train depends on two conductors, on two sides. Negotiations will go as fast as you will be able to negotiate, to implement the requirements and to reform. I hope that all political forces will be able to unite around the strategic goal of speeding-up negotiations. Only if all members of your team in the boat will row in the same direction, you will be able to make reforms, take the difficult decisions related to the negotiations and approximate to the EU legal framework and thus move fast towards the finish line.

My advice to you will be not to look at the accession negotiations as a box-ticking exercise that will bring you to the EU. The negotiating process should be seen as an instrument to bring the EU into the country, to bring about real change in the society and the country, and thus to answer the demands of your citizens. The road (negotiations) is as important as the final destination (membership).

Many new EU members, including Croatia, were faced with issues such as qualified workforce and youth migration in EU countries in Western Europe. What can we learn from their experience?

The answer to this question is linked to my previous answer. In order to prevent the outflow of people you need to bring the EU to your own country and to a large extent this is what the negotiation process should be about – it is about ensuring the proper application of the rule of law, it is about scrupulous fight against corruption, it is about stepping-up the efforts for environmental protection, improving the business climate, improving the food safety and so on. Progress in these areas brings tangible improvements to the lives of people, which in turn encourages youth to plan their future at home.

Some of the new Member States (but not all) experienced outflow of young people after they had joined the EU. However, as the situation in these countries is improving, several of them are witnessing the reverse trend and people started coming back. At the end of the day, there is no place like home (Doma si e doma).

The EU accession process requires implementing complex reforms, such as the rule of law, the economy, the fight against corruption and organized crime. What is the weakest spot in our country?

Your country has already achieved substantial progress on reforms in key areas such as the judiciary and the public administration and this was recognized by the latest update of the Commission on North Macedonia, published earlier this month. Further and deeper implementation of reforms will be needed for the country to successfully go through the negotiation process. Here perhaps the main challenge the country faces is not the will but the capacity to implement reforms, which requires significant resources, not least human. That it why it is important that country turns the negotiations into a sort of a national project, uniting all political forces and drawing on all the available expertise.

You recently tweeted that the EU will support North Macedonia with up to EUR 66 million. Can we expect direct support in medical supplies?

Indeed, the EU announced this week our initial support of around EUR 66 million for mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country. The amount includes EUR 4 million of immediate support to the health sector for the supply relevant equipment such as respirators, which we expect to put in effect with the help of UN partners in the very nearest future. We are in the process of signing contracts for purchasing the equipment. The remaining EUR 62 million will be dedicated to the social and economic recovery of the country. We will discuss with the government how best to use those funds.

Serbia and Italy asked and accepted help from China. Should North Macedonia do the same?

As far as I am aware your authorities are already in contact with their Chinese counterparts for the procurement of medical equipment and supplies. It is only normal that in such an unprecedented crisis situation countries seek help from each other. China, where the crisis started, is already coming out of it and is assisting others. The EU also provides solidarity support to third countries even as it deals with the challenges of the pandemic on its own soil. Solidarity is at the core of EU values and during this crisis we came back to understand its meaning and to appreciate it.

Finally, how the Covid-19 outbreak has been affected your everyday life? Do you think the government takes the right measures to fight the pandemic?

I assess that your institutions are taking timely decisions aiming at slowing-down the spread of the virus and ensuring that the pandemic does not overburden the healthcare system. I think it is very important that they continue keeping the public regularly informed about the state of affairs.

In order for health personal to be able to help us, we should help them by staying at home and respecting social distancing.

Same as everyone else’s, my everyday life is also affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. I follow the instructions of the authorities, avoid social contacts and conduct my work from home with the help of modern communication technologies. I spent days online at virtual meetings here in Skopje and with Brussels. If we all do our part here and elsewhere in Europe we should also come out of the grip of this virus in a couple of months.

Aleksandar Atanasov

Photo from MIA’s archive

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