Skopje, 18 May 2020 (MIA) – The positive dynamic introduced by the Friendship Treaty, resuming with the Prespa Agreement, had paved the way for the EU members to reach an unanimous decision and approve the opening of EU accession negotiations. This positive spirit has to be maintained by North Macedonia and Bulgaria, French Ambassador Christian Thimonier says in an interview with MIA.
“Efforts to find mutually acceptable solutions, based on scientific research and in the spirit of mutual understanding, have to continue,” he says in the interview, where he also talks about North Macedonia’s EU integration path, its reform implementation and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Read the full interview below:
In March in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU leaders approved the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia. But, Bulgaria’s remark was included in the summit’s minutes as an opinion by a member-state regarding identity-related issues. It wasn’t added in the summit conclusions. What’s your comment on some views in the country that Bulgaria’s demands, involving history and language – recently reiterated by Bulgaria’s foreign minister – might look like an introduction into a new veto for Skopje on its EU integration path?
France welcomed the 2017 Friendship Treaty as it promoted a proactive approach thawing the country’s relations with its neighbors. The positive dynamic it introduced, resuming with the Prespa Agreement, had paved the way for the EU members to reach an unanimous decision and approve the opening of EU accession negotiations.
This positive spirit has to be maintained by the two sides, especially as part of the activities of the committee of experts that has produced some encouraging results. Efforts to find mutually acceptable solutions, based on scientific research and in the spirit of mutual understanding, have to continue. European spirit and the pledge for shared values had made the accession of member countries possible in the past and will make also possible new members to join in the future.
The two nations agree they share common historical and cultural roots. The beautiful initiative of the countries’ top officials to commemorate Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Rome in May every year is a proof. Europe needs to – especially when the Balkans is involved – to cherish the spirit of communication by respecting the other side. Tensions have to simmer down in the interest of both countries and both nations, but also in the interest of Europe, which has to respond to the new challenges threatening its survival, its values and its prosperity, too.
France never underestimates issues inherited from the past. In November 2019, during its presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, France proposed the establishment of an Observatory on History Teaching in Europe to allow history to be valued as a joint legacy of the reconciled European continent. France financed the launch of the project, which should be based on a neutral and unbiased approach, by understanding the different interpretation of history and the fact that stereotypes and manipulation should not be allowed to go against the general aspirations of the European nations to write together a new chapter in history.
Top EU officials at the Zagreb online summit, which focused on an immediate response to the coronavirus crisis, said the negotiations process could be postponed due to COVID-19. Can the enlargement process be stalled due to the pandemic?
The summit was held amid unprecedented conditions, when each of the member countries is fully aware about the will of the people one day to join the Union and the need for concrete activities to make it happen. It cannot be achieved without a significant progress in rule of law and in view of the ambition for economic and social approachment. These activities require the countries in the region to double their political efforts and to gradually settle the disputes because the Union shouldn’t inherit them.
Also, the health crisis makes us thinking about our safety, including our safety as broadly as we can – it prompts us to speed up the momentum for change in order to be up to the task of our history.
France hopes North Macedonia would be able to join the French-German initiative as part of international efforts for finding a vaccine that would be public good at the disposal of all the nations. This kind of European spirit should prevail through concrete achievements.
After the EU leaders approved the opening of negotiations, the European Commission has been working on a draft-negotiating framework for North Macedonia, which is expected to be presented in early June. After it is unveiled, the document should be aligned by the member countries. Is it possible the first intergovernmental conference, which would mark the start of the negotiations, to take place during Germany’s EU presidency in the second half of this year?
We should always aim high, even more in times of unprecedented challenges. The importance of the circumstances should encourage all stakeholders to double the efforts and to work on removing the hurdles, if any. Commissioner (Olivér) Várhelyi seems confident in the chances for success, which is why everybody needs to support him. It’s important to achieve an initial dynamic including competent Macedonian teams, supported by a functioning government that is motivated and strong after having secured legitimacy in the new elections.
The member countries would have to iron out their positions in the process of aligning the negotiating framework. What’s Paris’ position if Sofia insists on incorporating historical and identity-related demands?
As regards the negotiating framework, we believe the Commission will align the positions in line with Europe’s interest. We hope, eventually, the strength of the European spirit would prevail given the importance of the issues and the joint interest to open the negotiations, based on the new revised methodology. The good will demonstrated by the signing of the 2017 agreement makes this text a solid foundation for progress to settle differences that might emerge between the two sides.
Upon France’s insistence, the new methodology of negotiations was adopted. Does it mean that it could eliminate any remarks by Paris in the course of the negotiations?
The new methodology insists on advancement of the rule of law with control mechanisms and it is reversible. It meets most of our demands that are in the interest of all citizens and in the interest of the Union itself. Also, the Union should provide funds for economic and social development of the region and to implement their own reforms. All of this should provide better conditions for new members to be accepted.
France pinpoints rule of law and fight against organized crime and corruption as one of the key aspects of reforms. What’s your opinion on the country’s progress in this area in anticipation of the European Commission progress report and in the context of the anti-corruption commission’s activities and on the eve of a verdict in the ‘Racket’ case?
The progress achieved in several areas since 2017 should be welcomed, including the implementation of several reforms and the adoption of laws that we are expecting, mainly in the judiciary. Their applicability needs to be checked in terms of judicial independence and effective fight against corruption. The public now has the capacity to gather enough information about the findings from the investigation into the said case. And it is a major step ahead.
The efforts of the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption are well-known. It perhaps needs more funds to have efficient and unbiased control of the numerous cases it is handling and to follow up on them once they are handed over to the judiciary bodies.
It is evident that the Constitutional Court has renewed its dynamic, which gives hope that progress can be achieved in the rule of law and implementation of European standards. Also, the strengthening of the Ombudsman’s role should be followed.
North Macedonia should hold the 10th parliamentary election. France on March 15 voted in the first round of the local elections. The second round most likely will take place on June 21. Is France preparing to vote? How election would be organized in the midst of a pandemic?
A decision is yet to be made if the second round would take place on June 21 in 5,000 regions, including the city of Paris. The government and the political stakeholders are discussing to find a reasonable consensus in which the health issue will be prioritized even though the pandemic is subduing in many regions in the country. Naturally, we would like to see the conditions fully met in order to have a large turnout, which increases the legitimacy of the election results.
According to WHO data, France is one of the top ten countries having registered a resurge in cases. Restrictions were relaxed on May 11. How is France addressing the coronavirus pandemic?
France has started easing the measures gradually, based on the differences registered between some areas, depending on the extent they are affected by the new virus, and according to hospital capacities. Economic activity is gradually being recovered. Some schools and shops are reopened where the health measures are in force. Private vehicles are used within a 100-km radius from the owner’s residence. Public transportation is subjected to strict hygienic conditions. Some beaches would be also reopened for visitors, as well as certain museums and cultural institutions.
Tourist reservations for a trip in the country are stimulated. Hopefully, the strict restrictions imposed for the population have produced results. We are prepared to handle a second wave, if necessary.
When will the French Development Agency in North Macedonia be inaugurated?
We’re in the final stages of aligning the agreement. We’ve continued to work in these hard times with our excellent partners from the country’s ministries of foreign affairs and finance. We’d like the agreement to be signed as soon as possible to enable projects to be implemented, mostly in healthcare and environment. We’re all aware that climate change affects people’s health and creates fertile ground for the outbreak of harmful diseases, like the one created by the coronavirus. We wish to get in touch with partners interested in joining concrete projects after the elections.
Translated by Bisera Altiparmakova
Photos by Darko Popov