Skopje, 1 May 2021 (MIA) – The region needs European perspective now, it doesn’t need discussions about problems from history. Slovakia is a strong supporter of the enlargement process of the Western Balkans, including North Macedonia and Albania, says Martin Klus, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.
“We feel that this is very important process not only for the region, but also for the European Union. That’s why Slovakia is among those so called ‘vocal countries’ trying to push this agenda,” Klus tells MIA in an interview during his visit to Skopje.
The Slovak diplomat is optimistic about the start of the first intergovernmental conference between North Macedonia and the EU in the first half of 2021.
Klus also urges the country to focus on rule of law, being one of the fundamental values of the European Union.
The EU has been preparing for a strategic discussion on Western Balkans – it has been postponed from 19 April to a date in May. Slovakia has been strong supporter of integration of this region to the EU. You personally play a very active role in this process. Why Slovakia, together with eight other countries initiated this discussion now?
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you. I want to assure you that Slovakia is strong supporter of enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, including North Macedonia and Albania. We feel that this is very important process not only for the region, but also for the European Union. That’s why Slovakia is among those so called ‘vocal countries’, who are always trying to push this agenda, including General Affairs Council, Foreign Affairs Council and the summit of the leaders.
Unfortunately, we are living quite a complicated time. During the pandemic situation, we are facing, in the past couple months everything slowed down, including the discussion about the enlargement process. On the other hand, we are having some good news. For instance, there is again a tandem of the United States and the European Union on very strategic issues, which is for Slovakia, and I guess for North Macedonia, a question of multilateralism, which is also very important and could lead to a quicker enlargement process of North Macedonia. I’m optimistic and hopefully with the end of the pandemic, or at least softening the situation soon, this process of enlargement will be much quicker.
In light of the general support that you just outlined, how do you rate North Macedonia’s European perspective and can we expect the first intergovernmental conference to be held this year? Is there any chance for North Macedonia and Bulgaria, to settle the bilateral dispute?
The European Union has to stick to its own rules and agenda, with which all EU member states agree. I just want to focus on the so called credible enlargement perspective for enhanced EU engagement in the Western Balkans from 2018, and I believe we have to follow this agenda. This could lead to the opening of the so called intergovernmental conference in June of July.
We understand that there are some problems we are trying to deal with, but what is unacceptable for us now is to decouple Albania and North Macedonia in this process, because we believe that if both of these countries start to negotiate together it will be much easier and much smoother for this region. That’s why Slovakia is supporting the start of this process soon.
What’s your comment on the non-paper that circulated recently and that mentions redrawing of the borders in the Western Balkans and what the consequences might be if this scenario was to be realized?
First of all, I need to tell you the non-paper has no author, actually it’s a non-paper. Nobody wants to be associated with very dangerous ideas, which we’ve seen in this non-paper.
I believe if somebody wants to start a discussion, he did so, but for me the most important moment is that the European Union and the United States, including some member states, Slovakia too, said very clearly that this is not acceptable for us. We need to stick to contemporary situations, including the borders and the agenda we started a couple of years ago. What this region needs now is to have European perspective, not to discuss problems from history.
The government adopted the „Europe at Home“ agenda aimed at applying European standards in the country. What is your opinion about reform implementation in the country, which areas need more attention to be paid, which areas have shortcomings?
First of all, I want to tell you that we really appreciate what North Macedonia is doing when it comes to the reform process. The process is not easy, especially not during the pandemic. On the other hand, we believe it is a win-win situation if North Macedonia is reforming its own processes, especially in the sphere of rule of law, which is very important for us in Slovakia. It’s one of the fundamental topics in the EU.
Of course, these are some other important reforms in front of North Macedonia, for instance agriculture and administration, but let’s focus on rule of law, which is the most important topic. I’m happy that this topic is also important part of the discussion within the so called National Convention, held in North Macedonia in the past couple of years.
What kind of difficulties had Slovakia faced while negotiating with the EU? Which chapters proved to be the hardest?
This is a very good question. I was a student at the university at the time and I followed the processes in the late 1990s in a very detailed way. It was not an easy process as long as Slovakia started negotiations two years later than our neighbors. We were running out of time and we did couple of mistakes. This is what I said to my colleagues here, in North Macedonia, to minister of foreign affairs, to deputy prime minister and to deputy minister of foreign affairs, and also to your parliamentarians that we are ready to share our experiences with the negotiations process and also the mistakes we did so hopefully you won’t repeat them.
If you are asking concretely what were problems, I can easily say that agricultural policy was one of the most problematic for us. There were some other chapters, including changes in the judiciary system and in the administration of the country. We are still facing kind of problems because nobody is perfect. After 17 years in the EU there is still place to improve.
The EU-North Macedonia National Convention was launched in 2017 with the support of SlovakAid and USAID, where experiences related to the accession negotiations are shared. Many Slovak experts have contributed by sharing experiences. What do you think of the work of the National Convention and how can it help the negotiating process?
I remember the National Convention in Slovakia in 2002/2004. I even wrote my diploma about it. I understand that this is a very important process to get to the EU because it’s a perfect place where the citizens focus on national as well as on European issues. I’m very proud that our experts are part of the discussion in North Macedonia. I believe it’s perfect opportunity for us also to share our experiences. Hopefully, this could also lead to bring North Macedonia on board the discussion, which is starting in a couple of days in Strasbourg, which is called “Conference on the Future of Europe”. As long as it is a conference on the future of Europe, I hope that we need to discuss our future not only within EU member states, but also with those countries which will be EU member states soon.
That was my next question. Can you tell us more about the “Conference on the Future of Europe” project?
I appreciate that you already started the so called digital platform. Everybody in the EU can now address their points of view of what should be the future of the European Union digitally. We are waiting for the easing of the pandemic all around Europe so we can start real discussions with the citizens of the Union member states in their regions and their cities.
I’m definitely sure we need such a discussion because one of the most important problems of the Union is that people don’t focus on European problems, they are more focused on local and national problems. Such a discussion, which starts on May 9, is heavily appreciated by the government of Slovakia. We will be very happy if North Macedonia is part of it. We are ready to come to North Macedonia with such discussion and we’ll be very glad if people from North Macedonia will come to discuss it in Slovakia and other European Union countries.
How do you rate the bilateral cooperation between the two countries? Are there ways to strengthen the economic cooperation?
I really appreciate that after we opened our embassy in Skopje, and North Macedonia is about to open its embassy in Bratislava – this is very important part of our bilateral relationship. I believe that having presence of North Macedonia with embassy in Bratislava will bring more aspects of cooperation, also bilateral cooperation between our countries. We need to work hard, especially on enhancing business contacts and people-to-people contacts. Whenever the pandemic is over, I believe we can start such cooperation in many ways, cultural, educational and as I already mentioned business, because it is the best way to strengthen bilateral relations between two countries.
Neda Dimova – Prokikj
Photos by Frosina Naskovikj
Video by Aslan Vishko