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EU showed unity while responding to Russian aggression against Ukraine, same unity should be shown in support of EU enlargement, Strážaj tells MIA

The situation in Europe today makes membership in the European Union a kind of a security guarantee. Therefore, EU member states should speed up the integration process, not make any obstacles that would make it delayed again, and make countries like yours, who are best prepared for the EU integration process, continue with the negotiations, director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Tomáš Strážaj, said in an interview with MIA.

Skopje, 14 May 2022 (MIA) – The situation in Europe today makes membership in the European Union a kind of a security guarantee. Therefore, EU member states should speed up the integration process, not make any obstacles that would make it delayed again, and make countries like yours, who are best prepared for the EU integration process, continue with the negotiations, director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Tomáš Strážaj, said in an interview with MIA, which is available in full below.

 EU enlargement has become a security issue due to the situation in Ukraine. How will this affect EU enlargement policy, as well as overall stability in the Western Balkans?  

The unprecedented aggression of Russia against Ukraine is not only going to affect the stability and the situation here in the region, but in overall Europe and the European Union, and it will also have global implication, because what we see is clear breaching of international law, multilateralism and basically the fundaments of the world system as we have known it in the past. This is really a big challenge we have to face. And I think the response to this big challenge could also be the speeded up integration process of the European Union.

Your country has been waiting very long for the beginning of the negotiations. We know that there are other countries on the list here in the region that are aspiring for EU membership, and we also know that there are three new applicant who want to become EU members. These countries are from the so-called Eastern Partnership. This fact is also going to affect the enlargement, because Ukraine submitted its application to the European Union, and there are some thoughts on the side of the European Union to make the process faster in the case of Ukraine and because of the situation Ukraine is facing, and basically these are also the elements that are going to affect the integration process.

So, my simple response would be to advise and actually recommend the European Union and the member states to speed up the integration process, not to make any obstacles that would make it delayed again, and make the countries like yours, who are best prepared for the EU integration process, to continue with the negotiations.

The EU showed quite a big unity while responding to the Russian aggression and this same unity should also be shown in the case of the support of EU enlargement.

North Macedonia is blocked by Bulgaria on its way to the EU due to identity and historical issues. Do you think that there should be a change in the decision-making policy in the EU having in mind that this bilateral issue is an obstacle of start of negotiations, even though the country has fulfilled everything required and the EU is still not delivering? 

As you know, each of the EU member states can apply its veto on common decisions. That’s why we started to debate about the so-called qualified majority voting in the EU, but the discussion is not finished yet. This would enable actually the qualified majority of EU member states to pursue or adopt a decision, a common decision, and this would somehow remove this problem of vetoing the process by one single country.

When it comes to this particular issue, Slovakia showed very clearly that its support to the integration of North Macedonia is very high. We also showed that we find unacceptable to bring bilateral issues in the EU integration process, but unfortunately the voting system and the voting mechanism in the EU looks like it looks nowadays and we have to count on each of the member states on the support to begin the accession negotiations with North Macedonia. So I think it’s up to the EU, the ongoing EU Presidency and maybe the forthcoming EU Presidency as well, to intensify the negotiations with Bulgaria, with other member states and basically remove this obstacle from the agenda. The times changed, and now we together in Europe are facing this huge challenge in terms of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and we should show more unity and should support the integration process jointly, and make countries like North Macedonia and other applicant countries to become members as soon as possible without any further delay.

A few days ago there was an article by a German journalist “Western Balkans – a powder keg in the eternal waiting room of Europe” not in the sense that a new war is possible in the region but rather in the context of not having a clear European perspective. Do you agree with this? 

The response to any challenge is really the faster integration process, because the membership in the European Union is, as you put it clearly, kind of a security guarantee. We’re glad to have North Macedonia as an ally in NATO, but we would be definitely happier if North Macedonia would become full-fledged member state of the European Union, and I think that the integration process is clearly going in a direction to strengthen the stability and the prosperity of the region, to extend the geographic area where the joint values are applied.

The region of the Western Balkans and SouthEastern Europe were in the past known for certain kind of instability, but we just believe that the continuing of the integration process would provide the best response to all those who say that the region would still represent danger for the stability of the European continent.

So, the response is again – faster European integration and involvement of the countries in the European Union.

Ukraine has been promised fast-track EU membership, while North Macedonia has been a candidate since 2005. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg believes that Ukraine should not be offered EU membership because he says there are countries in the Western Balkans that have gone through a long way. He advocates a different path for Ukraine to membership, for example accession to the European Economic Area. How do you see this?

The essence of the EU integration process is that any country that geographically belongs to Europe and fulfills the membership criteria could become a full-fledged EU country. I think it’s a good sign that there is an interest in EU integration in countries like Ukraine, but also Georgia and Moldova. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine is in a very specific situation and I think it deserves our support. I think that the political signals sent to Ukraine from the EU institutions in Brussels were supportive of its integration ambitions. On the other hand, this possible fast-track integration of Ukraine should not be presented as an excuse for further delay of accession negotiations with countries like yours and Albania. So, I think a compromise should be found and this crisis brings the EU into a position when it is necessary to show the unity and the openness of the EU to all those countries who aspire for Union membership.

Of course, not all EU states might have the same position. We saw that in the case of the beginning of negotiations with North Macedonia, different countries in the EU had different positions in the past, the same will be true with Ukraine, but I think that the EU, as response to the crisis in Ukraine, should somehow present a joint voice and be united in positive responses to countries like yours but also to the new applicants from Eastern Europe.

I believe in compromise and joint position of the EU towards this. Your country definitely deserves this but also the new applicants from Eastern Europe because they deserve it as well.

Slovakia has been providing military assistance to Ukraine, and there has been a large wave of Ukrainian refugees into the country since the beginning of the conflict. Are they staying in Slovakia or heading to Western European countries? How is your country handling the situation?

This is a new situation because we are direct neighbors of Ukraine together with Romania, Moldova, Poland and Hungary, Up to now, I really don’t know the most recent data, but a few days ago it was over 380,000 refugees who entered Slovakia, and those who remained were about 75,000. This means that the bigger part has left the country and went to other EU countries or even to partners and allies overseas. The U.S. and Canada, for instance, have shown willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees. Still, those 75,000 who stayed in Slovakia is a quite significant number.

A new law has been adopted that enables Ukrainians to overcome difficulties related to their status in Slovakia, which also provides them with assistance and benefits. The children, at least some of them, are included in Slovakia’s school system, there is no language barrier because of the language similarity.

But what is even more important is that the EU has tried to find a joint response to this challenge, because the increasing number of refugees creates the challenge for the whole European Union. We saw the support of the EU and particular member-states would not have been able to handle the situation for a longer time. We have several million refugees from Ukraine in Poland, in Czech Republic there are over 300,000, dozens of thousands are also staying in Hungary, so this is really a joint challenge. I am glad to say that Slovakia really showed solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees and the engagement of NGOs, those who are focusing on humanitarian aid and other aspects, was really high and should be particularly appreciated.

We are in the ‘work in process’ exercise, which means that the situation has not ended yet, the flows of refugees are still coming, but on the other hand, there are days when the number of Ukrainian citizens who cross the border in the other direction – from Slovakia to Ukraine – has already been higher than the number of those who cross the border from Ukraine to Slovakia, which shows that a significant portion of Ukrainian citizens want to return home, to the safe regions as soon possible.

As an expert, you share the Slovak experiences on the road to the EU at the sessions of the National Convention of the EU in North Macedonia, where the fundamental chapters of judiciary, agriculture, home affairs, environment are debated… Where do you think the country has made the biggest success, and which areas should be given more attention?

I would say that the simple fact that the National Convention project has been implemented for almost five years already is a big achievement because it shows the dedication of the local stakeholders to the project, it shows that the experts and the members of the working groups do work properly and their work brings tangible results in terms of recommendations. We have exact numbers to support this statement, because we have had 43 working group sessions since 2017, we have developed 43 sets of recommendations, we had four plenary sessions with the involvement of the President of North Macedonia, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia, other high-ranking officials of our countries, but another important fact is that we managed to connect more than 1,000 experts in this joint endeavor. These facts already show that the process and the project have been successful.

It is difficult for me to say which areas are more important than others because we know that social policy and employment for instance is a very sensitive issue and very important in terms of further economic development and stability of the Republic of North Macedonia. There is joint consensus that Chapters 23 and 24 focusing on judiciary, justice and security, and we already have tangible results in this regard. Several recommendations that were developed during working group sessions were implemented or translated into the legislation, and also in the field of judiciary and fight against corruption.

There are some areas that require more work and efforts but on the other hand, we can say that the situation has already developed in some terms.

I think that the response to this would be continuous work of the National Convention project. We are at the stage of looking for all possible support to continue the project here in North Macedonia, not only in those chapters and areas that we mentioned, but also in other areas where actually the joint position of experts from governmental and non-governmental sphere can bring the added value to the integration process of North Macedonia.

Neda Dimova Prokikj

Photo: Frosina Naskovikj

 

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