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Republic of Macedonia and the EU integration process

Dane Taleski and Ivan Damjanovski


After receiving the status of a candidate country on the 17th of December 2005, Macedonia is firmly set on its path toward full EU membership. When this perspective will be realized is far from clear, since the date of starting the negotiations is not even set. However, the contractual relations between Macedonia and the EU have evolved qualitatively. Now the country has clear guidelines for the future steps in the EU integration process and direct support of such actions. The support provided from the EU will be significantly lower than the one given to previous candidate members. At the moment in Macedonia the support for the EU membership and the expectations from it are very high, both of the national political elite and of the citizens as well. But the realization of the expectations are set in very realistic terms. It is very clear that solving national problems, such as unemployment, low economic development and corruption will be crucial for the future of the EU integration process. The national parliamentary elections will be the first practical test, but they will also bring the focus of the public, politicians and of the EU further on the national developments.

1. Short overview of relations between Macedonia and the European Union
Although, granting candidate status by the European Council has been the principal cornerstone of the Macedonian integration process, this decision has been supported with relations that have lasted for more than a decade. The Republic of Macedonia and the European Union established diplomatic relations in late December 1995 which resulted in immediate economic assistance under the PHARE Programme. However, the signing of the Cooperation Agreement and the Trade and Textile agreements between the Republic of Macedonia and the European Communities in 1997 and their entering into force in 1998 is of crucial significance since it represents the first complex and binding legal document between the two parties regulating the political relations on one hand, but trade issues granting access of Macedonian products on the European market on the other. These relations have been developed within the Regional Approach of the Council which was primarily focused on the establishment of political and economic conditionality for the development of bilateral relations. Politically, such arrangements have been instrumentalised through political dialogue on ministerial level and under the auspices of the Cooperation Council.
The Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP), which has been initiated by the Commission in 1999 is the principal framework for cooperation and integration for five Western Balkans countries: Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Serbia and Montenegro. The signing (9th of April 2001) and entering into force (1st of April 2004) of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) meant a radical shift in the relations between Macedonia and the EU, mainly in terms of increased pressure on the process of harmonization of legislation and further institutionalization. Politically, the SAA indicts further democratic consolidation and imposes a formal framework for political dialogue in bilateral and regional terms. Furthermore, the SAA implies that Macedonia can be perceived as a potential EU member, which is a statement that has been previously backed by the conclusions of the Santa Maria de Feira and Thessalonica Summits.
Economically, the SAA meant opening of the European market for Macedonian products with enhanced exports without customs duties and quantitative restrictions. 1 These favorable terms for export are enhanced by the asymmetric market liberalization clause which protects the domestic market with gradual decreasing of customs duties for European products in a time frame of ten years. However, the weak state of the Macedonian economy and low standardization of products have been the main factors for the stagnation of exports of Macedonian products in the EU.
Another important element of the Stabilization and Association Process is the financial support of the country’s participation in the process through reforms within the EU integration process which so far has been realized through the CARDS Regional Programme that entered into force in December 2000. Although the CARDS Programme has projected multi annual budgeting (2002–2006), due to weak institutional absorption capacity, a large percent of the finances hasn’t been implemented.2 The adoption of the Council Decision on the Principles, Priorities and Conditions contained in the European Partnership with the Republic of Macedonia in June 2004 has further improved the agenda setting stages of the integration process by providing an instrument which clearly identifies the country’s reform priorities in pursuit of opening of negotiations.
The Government’s decision to submit an application for membership of the European Union in March 2004, from today’s perspective, can be portrayed as a turnover assessment, especially having in mind the rather negative immediate response within the public debate. However, the application process that followed has seriously contested the public administration and its ability to provide adequate answers to the questionnaire prepared and submitted by the European Commission. Nevertheless, despite the rather low quality response from some ministries, the overall evaluation has been positive and resulted in the positive opinion of the European Commission in November 2005 recommending candidate status. 3

1.1 The candidate status and its implications
The granting of the candidate status at the Brussels European Council on December 17th 2005 is undoubtedly a historical moment and a radical boost of Macedonia’s accession aspirations. However, the contentious constellation of interests within the EU and the open skepticism coming from some member states that surrounded the decision, made a usually formal decision seem like a hard-fought battle. As Glenn broadly defines the relevance of enlargement concerns as “the question of cost and economic threats; arguments about the impact of enlargement on the security and stability of new and existing member states; practical questions of institutional reform within the EU; and, not least whether a wider Europe necessarily implies a weakening of the European integration project”4 , Macedonia’s case seemed to be additionally hardened by the effects of political considerations which are not connected with its integration process, namely failed constitutionalisation and budgetary interstate bargaining. The open French skepticism to further enlargement and the failure to project a date for opening accession negotiations are clear indications that Macedonia’s integration process might have political barriers.
Nevertheless, the effects that the candidate status imposes are multiple. Firstly, it will obviously strengthen the regional position of the country and provide further improvement of the country’s stability. This political decision comes at a very important time, having in mind the resolution of the final status of Kosovo and the security implications it might have on Macedonia. In this sense, the successful implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement must be stressed. Its implication on the country’s stability is also highlighted in the Commission’s Opinion and can be observed as one of the most important factors that provided the recommendation for granting the status of a candidate country.5
In terms of economic reform, there have been unrealistically high expectations of short-term foreign direct investments due to the strengthening of the country’s portfolio as a result of the granted candidate status. Weak business climate, inefficient judiciary system and weak institutional infrastructure prevail as dominant factors in preventing growth and FDI. However, on mid-term basis (preconditioned by gradual administrative reform and further liberalization of the market), the implications of the candidate status should be more instrumental in obtaining investment and providing growth.6 The pressure that is set upon the administration coming from the new set of relations with the EU, assures a more efficient approach towards acquis approximation and implementation.
In terms of EU financial support, the high expectations of the western Balkan countries have been undermined by the outcomes of the negotiations of the new financial perspective. In this sense, the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA), doesn’t provide the necessary impetus since it comes with “half the level of support of any previous pre-accession process”.7 Thus, the candidate status for Macedonia can not be perceived as a significant financial boost.
1.2 The challenge ahead – accession negotiations
The Opinion of the Commission undoubtedly indicates that Macedonia at the present time isn’t ready for opening accession negotiations: “the Commission considers that negotiations for accession to the European Union should be opened with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia once it has reached a sufficient degree of compliance with the membership criteria”.8 Since the Commission obliged to prepare a report on the progress Macedonia made, no later than the end of 2006, the earliest dates for accession negotiations could be expected during 2007.
Although, opening of accession negotiations should be a priority within Macedonia’s integration agenda, so far this issue has hardly sparked any debate. Institutionally, in 2005 the Government has adopted a Decision on establishing working groups for preparing negotiating positions for accession negotiations, but this action hasn’t been backed with follow-up activities.9 The current public debate failed even to mention short term plans in requisites of creation of a negotiating team, its institutional position and human resources available.
At this stage of reforms, the Macedonian administration lacks the capacity to conduct accession negotiations. Although the process of answering the Commission’s questionnaire can be perceived as a highly positive experience both in terms of motivation and confidence building as well as improving inter-institutional communication, still the process of public administration reform lacks clear determination and further investment. In this sense the ability to implement the short term priorities stated in the Commission’s Opinion will be the first evaluation point and a factor in future decisions on opening negotiations. Here, the successful implementation of the upcoming parliamentary elections is perceived as the main political pre-condition and therefore is the highest absorbing factor at the moment. Reforms of the judiciary, fighting organized crime and corruption, police reform and efficient administrative procedures accompany the list of short term priorities and will represent a heavy burden on the administration.
One of the biggest obstacles towards successful negotiations and efficient acquis implementation is the obvious failure to comply with the policy agenda. Although, the framework of documents that determine the agenda and final deadlines provide the necessary guidelines, so far the administration has not been able to follow the pace.10 Such inefficiency could bring significant delays within the negotiation process meaning that the performance indicators of the administration should be prioritized. Such capacity building for effective implementation would not only demand a high stake of resource allocation and human resource investment, but also a firm institutional approach. Namely, on mid-term basis, Macedonia should be able to provide the minimum human resources (mostly through EU support programs such as TAIEX and TWINNING) needed for the adoption and implementation of the acquis. However, the utilization of such human potential will be determined only with a stronger system of coordination and organization and higher participation of the relevant institutions. One particularly problematic aspect is the intra-institutional administrative hierarchy and the low level of autonomy and independence of the actors in the decision making process. In order to avoid institutional sclerosis once the negotiation process has started, the administration needs to lower the range of creative interpretation of different sets of rules within the government policy implementation agencies and set up well formulated rules and procedures. Identification of the desired outputs should be accompanied by clear performance indicators and stimulation signifying a new strength that will motivate the administration with apparent absence of political pressures.

2. Public and political reactions in Macedonia toward the EU integration process
The general public in Macedonia is extremely supportive of the idea of Macedonia becoming an EU member state. Surveys show that around 94% of the total population is in favor of this idea.11 The same survey, conducted on a nationally representative sample of 1040 respondents shows that 57 percent of the population consider the EU membership to be a main priority for them personally. Additional 35.2 percent of the population considers the membership to be important for them, but not as a main priority. The results indicate that the EU membership is a generally wide spread idea and that it has strong support from the citizens. A great deal of the public feels personally engaged in the processes as such. Probably most of the citizens expect direct personal benefits as an outcome from it.
Despite the strong support of the idea of the EU membership, people put the realization of this idea in a more realistic perspective. According to Brima Gallup, a public opinion research agency, “one third of the population thinks that Macedonia will enter the EU after 5 years, while more than 33 percent think that it will happen after 10 years”.12 Results from the IDSCS survey show that close to 50 percent of the population think that Macedonia will enter in EU after 10 years. Such realistic reasoning does not give a strong impetus to policy decisions that are in favor of accelerating the EU integration processes. For example, in 2003 when the government of the Republic of Macedonia decided to submit an application for receiving a candidate status, only 35 percent of the population thought that the decision was timely.13 A great deal of the media, journalists and editors, as well as many influential opinion makers voiced their concern over the frightfulness of the government’s decision. Their concerns were that Macedonia was lagging behind in the process of structural reforms and had weak institutional capacities to engage more vigorously in the EU integration processes. The overwhelming tone of the recommendations coming from national experts was that the officials and national administration should firstly make greater progress in the reform processes and then focus more on the EU integration issues. The Deputy Prime Minister of the government for EU integration Radmila Shekerinska, the ‘spiritus movens’ of the application initiative, brought up a different point. According to her the application for a candidate status would bring more outside pressure for upgrading the ongoing reforms in the country. The pressure would be pointed to the political elite and public administration, both crucial for finishing the cycle of reforms but also for the EU integration as such.

2.1 Debating over the AVIS
Despite the critical opinion that was predominant in the media, the government decided to submit the application for becoming an EU candidate country. The decision and action did not meet with any public resistance or skepticism in some other form. It seems that the people have less incentive and will support the Government’s EU integration initiatives, rather than oppose the whole process. Such attitudes can easily be explained if one has in mind the low level of confidence that the citizens of Macedonia have in the national political institutions.14 People disbelieve the capacities of the institutions to make substantial progress in any area of their competence.
While awaiting the response from the European Commission (EC) the attitudes and opinions of the national political leaders were different. Shekerinska, the Deputy Prime Minister of the government, considered that “objective opinion would be a positive opinion” on the application for receiving a candidate status.15 On the other hand, Ljubcho Georgievski, former Prime Minister and now an oppositional leader, expected a negative opinion from the EC which would have shown the incapability of the government to conduct the reform processes. The conflicting statements come from the political confrontation of these two political officials. Coming from different ideological positions in their battle for political power in Macedonia they use even the issue of EU integration. However, not a single mainstream politician in Macedonia is raising concerns over the EU membership. There is a general political consensus on fulfilling the ambition of EU membership, but there is a natural political conflict over which political party would be the best manager of the process.
After receiving the positive opinion of the EC the political parties had different reactions. The junior coalition partners in the Government conveyed “satisfaction from the good news from Brussels, the common future capital”.16 The parties in opposition had more critical reactions aimed at the government. In the words of Gordana Jankulovska, Secretary General of the main oppositional party VMRO-DPMNE, if the Government would act beyond the interests of the ruling parties, then Macedonia “would have bigger chance of receiving a date for the start of the negotiations”.17 Parties in opposition were rather in favor of considering the EC’s positive opinion also as a success of the previous government, and the ruling parties were rather in favor of overcoming the public pessimism concerning the political developments in the country. Quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, BBC predicted that Macedonia would receive the status of a candidate country in the EU summit in December 2004.18 More openly the European Parliament enacted a declaration that recommended Macedonia be given a candidate status and the same statement came from Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for CFSP, but with a reserve on the actual date of starting the negotiations.19 But not everyone in Macedonia saw the positive opinion as pinning down the future of the country. Some artists warned that the EU is seen as a “new cult, a new ideological symbol”.20 The public in Macedonia would like to believe in the bright perspectives that the possibility for EU membership brings, but after a transition of economic decline and rising poverty they are afraid that it would be just another case of wishful thinking.

2.2 Debating as a candidate country
The main message that predicted the final decision of the Council came from the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Oli Rehn. Coming to Skopje to deliver the positive avis to the government, he stressed that the “content is more important than the schedule”.21 Indeed, one of the decisions made at the December 2005 EU summit was to give Macedonia the status of a candidate country, but without a date for starting the negotiations. The boss of Mr Rehn, Manuel Baroso the President of the EU Commission acknowledged the progress that Macedonia has made from a brink of a civil war in 2001 to its current status. But his message that “now we have to work on basis of the conditions that all EU members have to meet”, resonated the loudest in the Macedonian public.22 Many politicians in Macedonia agreed with his views. Mr Branko Crvenkovski, the President of Macedonia, in his public statement commenting the candidate status was rather sober, stressing that it was not a magic wand that would bring solutions to all problems. In his views it was more an achievement of the political leadership in the last 14 years of Macedonia’s independence and “confirmation of the pro-European capacity and democratic potential” that the country possesses.23 Stepping in his shoes, both as president of the main ruling party and Prime Minister of the government, Vlado Buchkovski shows more vigor in regards to the EU integration, but also claims more personal credit. In his views his government has shown that “results are accomplished with optimism and that we are ready to face the challenges”.24 Leaders of parties in opposition point out that the candidate status does not bring solutions to the practical problems that the people are facing, such as unemployment and low standard of leaving. They tend to see the candidate status as a possibility for future progress, but only if the government changes its behavior and works to fulfill the EU criteria.
As the date for elections in 2006 approaches, political debates with such focus will dominate the public discussions. Until they are finished the political campaign and other party activities will attract the public attention, thus leaving little space for the more practical EU integration issues. But even when the elections are over it is questionable to what extent the citizens will be interested in the EU integration issues when 59.6 percent think that Macedonia is going in a wrong direction.25 Their first reaction to the candidate status was rather moderate. The citizens were generally happy and satisfied feeling that their place in Europe had been confirmed. Their expectations from the EU membership are very high. In between 80 and 90 percent believe that it will bring progress in areas such as economic development, foreign investment and national politics and stability.26 But their main recommendations to the government in regards to the EU integration process fall in line with the recommendations coming from the EU. They would like to see greater economic progress and less euphoria, very well aware that the candidate status brings more obligations than rewards. According to 74 and 65 percent of the citizens, respectively, such main obligations are solving the unemployment problem and also tackling the issue of corruption in state institutions.27 In the mid-term perspective one should expect of and encourage the political elite in Macedonia to work on such issues that are instrumental for the future EU integration process.

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