Recommendation remains, defeat for those who were against it

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The European Commission officially issued another, sixth in a row, recommendation for Macedonia to open its accession negotiations. In the progress report, made available on Wednesday, the European Commission finds that Macedonia continues to sufficiently meet the criteria needed to open the talks, something that was first noted in the 2009 report. The talks haven’t started yet, because Greece uses its veto power at the European Council, that must approve the conclusion made by the Commission.

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MIA correspondent from Brussels reports that the Commission also repeats in recommendation that Macedonia should at least begin the screening process and start talks on the negotiating framework, hoping that this would create the needed positive atmosphere to meanwhile find a solution to the name issue which Greece has used to block Macedonian negotiations. Greece has refused to accept this parallel track approach, under which Macedonia would also start negotiating, under the understanding that a solution to the name issue with Greece should be found in the early stages of the negotiations with the EU.

Because of the name issue, the European Commission concludes that Macedonian integrations remain at an impasse, but finds that Macedonia is prepared for the talks.

– The Commission remains convinced that a decision to open accession negotiations would contribute to creating the conditions conducive to improving good neighbourly relations in general and, in particular, to finding a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, which the Commission considers essential. After almost two decades, intense political commitment from all sides in the UN process is required to finally reach a solution, with the active engagement of the international community, the enlargement strategy report reads, adding that the Commission is prepared to give a proposal for negotiating framework without delay, but only upon invitation from the European Council, where Greece can block any progress for Macedonia.

The conclusions and recommendations in the 2014 Enlargement strategy notes that Macedonia is at an impasse, pointing out to the failure of the European Council to act after the repeated Commission recommendations to open the accession talks. At the same time, the Commission notes the failure of the Macedonian Government to deliver on a number of key areas regarding reforms, has damaged the sustainability of the reforms and has even led to reversal in some areas.

The report recommends that it is essential that decisive steps are taken to resolve the name issue with Greece, noting that failure by the two countries to reach a compromise, after 19 years of UN facilitated talks, has negatively affected Macedonian EU integrations.

The European Commission notes that Macedonia was the first country that signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), and has been a candidate for membership since 2005. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Macedonian SAA, the oldest one in the region.

– In advance of the tenth anniversary of the entry into force of the SAA in April 2004, the Commission also calls for a fifth time on the Council to adopt its 2009 proposal to move to the second stage of the association, in line with the relevant provisions of the SAA, which foresee that the association shall be fully realised over a transitional period of a maximum of ten years, the report recommends.

Regarding the political criteria, the Commission report finds that Macedonia continues to sufficiently meet the needs of EU membership. The report finds that Macedonia has completed some of the judicial reforms, and has in general a high level of legislative alignment with the European Union, especially considering where it is in the process of accession. Still, the report warns that there are serious challenges and events during the year heightened the risk of going back on some key reform areas, such as in the “increasingly divisive political culture”. The report recommends that the Macedonian Government makes sure the opposition is able to fully function in its role.

– Overall, the functioning of Parliament continued to be hindered by the lack of constructive political dialogue and the ongoing deep divisions between the political parties. The absence of most opposition MPs from parliament hampered its work on adopting new reforms, and its ability to provide the necessary checks and balances on the activities of government. It is the responsibility of both government and opposition to ensure that political debate takes place primarily in parliament and to contribute to creating the conditions for its proper functioning, the report notes.

The report also expresses concern about the influence the Government has over public institutions and the media, especially in the context of the elections and the recommendations made by the OSCE/ODIHR monitoring mission.

In its key findings, Brussels points out Macedonia should focus on reforms should be on issues such as judicial independence, so the courts will be able to cope with growing claims about selective enforcement. The report also comments on the court case for the killings of five ethnic Macedonians by ethnic Albanians, performed under suspected Islamist motives in 2012, and the killing of a Macedonian by an Albanian in 2014, that have caused protests and heated reactions between the Macedonian and Albanian community.

– The coalition partners made joint efforts to calm the protests but some political leaders from both communities continued to use ethno-centric and divisive language, particularly during election campaigns. More effort is needed, under the Ohrid Framework Agreement, to proactively promote positive inter-community relations, the European Commission recommends.

Brussels also notes that Macedonia is active in regional policy developments and continues to build its relations with its neighbours. In the neighbourhood relations, the report he report naturally focuses on the name issue with Greece.

– The name issue continues to affect relations with Greece. Maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential. Open issues remain in the negotiation of a bilateral agreement with Bulgaria, the report notes.

Regarding the economic situation, the European Commission report finds that Macedonian economy has continued to recover during 2013 and financial stability was maintained, but that unemployment levels, particularly among the youth, are very high. The report notes that fiscal discipline, as well as transparency and quality of Government spending, has gone down. The country is advancing well, the report notes, but more efforts are needed to have a fully functioning market economy.

The Commission recommends structural reforms, including in the area of public finances, multi year budgeting and strategic planning, to help Macedonia deal with competitive pressures and market forces within the Union. in this regard, the report concludes that growth and employment results will depend on the development of the domestic private sector, and that one of the ways to support it would be improved access to finances.

Regarding alignment of Macedonian and EU legislatives, the report notes that Macedonia cooperates broadly with the Union in all areas of EU law, and is in an advanced stage of alignment.

– This is sufficient for the country to move in the next phase of the accession process. Focus should be on administrative capacity and coordination, and to ensure effective implementation. Further efforts are needed regarding the legislature on regional policies, environment and climate change, welfare policies and education. Internal public financial control should also be strengthened and developed within the public administration, the European Commission notes.

The Commission points out that there was further progress in the reform of the public administration, as well as in the active regional and international police cooperation.

– There are serious concerns about government control over public institutions and the media. Issues — which also featured in last year’s report, the report notes, adding that there is growing concern about selective enforcement of justice and the media situation continues to deteriorate.

The enlargement strategy credits the High Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD) with contributing to progress in most priority areas, but also notes that the HLAD dialogue didn’t take place during the past year. The Commission says it remains ready to help Macedonia in any way it can, including through the HLAD talks, to push forward implementation of EU associated reforms.

The European Commission finds that its enlargement strategy has improved the credibility of the enlargement policy in the past five years and has improved EU’s power to transform the aspiring member countries. In this light, the Commission notes its recent approach, to focus on several key areas, such as rule of law and respect for basic rights, in the initial stages of accession. Other two pillars of this policy are economic governance and public administration reforms.

– In 2012, the Commission represented its new approach toward the rule of law, and last year it established the improved frame to strengthen economic governance. This year, the Commission sets a new idea to support reforms in the public administrations of candidate countries. These three pillars are interlocked and progress in these areas will be crucial to determine when countries will be fully prepared to join the Union, the general enlargement conclusions note.

According to the European Commission, their enlargement policy continues to contribute to peace, security and prosperity in Europe. This, according to the Commission, increases the political and economic strength of the European Union and has a powerful transformational effect on the countries involved. The Commission maintains that the enlargement has had a mutually beneficial effect on both the candidate and member states, has increased trade and investments, as well as quality of life. The reports note that, for the Balkan countries, the EU perspective is a key factor of stability.

– Good neighbourly relations and inclusive regional cooperation remain essential. Continued efforts are needed to deal with bilateral issues and overcome the legacies of the past in the region that was shaken by conflicts until recently, the enlargement strategy report notes.

The European Commission concludes that enlargement became a powerful instrument of the EU foreign policy and that the developments in the neighborhood of the Union emphasize the importance of enlargement policy as a tool for further strengthening the cooperation on key issues of the foreign policy. The EC underlines that bilateral dialogue on foreign policy with each of the enlargement countries should be improved and that the foreign security and defence policy should be aligned at the start of the negotiations with EU candidate countries. The Commission emphases to the candidate countries the importance of progressively aligning their foreign policy positions with the European Union, including participation in the programs of the European Defense Agency. These comments are seen as a message aimed at the candidate countries to join the EU in its sanctions against Russia.

This is interpreted as a message to EU’s candidate and potential candidate countries to join the sanctions of the EU against Russia.
Moreover, the enlargement strategy also notes that the enlargement process will remain to be rigorous, built on strict but fair conditionality with progress towards membership dependent on the steps taken by each country to meet the established criteria. This, the EC notes, is crucial for the credibility of enlargement policy and for providing incentives to the countries to pursue far-reaching reforms and providing support from EU citizens.

– EU member-states and institutions should debate the political, economic and social consequences of the enlargement policy. Progress in chapters 23 and 24 (rule of law and basic rights) should be made in parallel with the progress of the overall negotiations, the Commission writes, noting that it is possible to block progress on other chapters if progress on chapters 23 and 24 is stalled.

In relation to strengthening the economic management and competitiveness in the enlargement countries, the conclusion of the EC report notes that the Commission foresees preparation of national economic reform programmes for the Western Balkans. The first part will include an improved version of the existing Pre-Accession economic program for candidate countries and economic and fiscal programmes for potential candidates laying down a middle-term macroeconomic and fiscal political framework with an increased focus on assessing external sustainability and structural hurdles for growth. The second one will cover structural reforms and concern is being voiced over the improvement of competitiveness and economic growth, including investments in infrastructural needs.

With regards to the third pillar of the enlargement process, set by the European Commission, the public administration reforms, it is noted that the Macedonian public administration is still politicized and that the transparency, professionalism and efficiency of the public administration need to be increased.

Support to the reform process, strengthening the functioning and independence of key democratic institutions in aspiring member countries is of vital importance, the European Commission notes. It requires a constructive and sustainable dialogue throughout the entire political spectrum, and especially in the Parliament. At the same time, efforts should be made in order to create a favourable environment for civil organizations.

– Good neighbourly ties are an essential element in the stabilization and association process. Continuous efforts are needed to overcome the legacy from the past, to foster reconciliation and settlement of bilateral disputes between the candidate countries and the member countries. Bilateral issues need to be resolved by the parties involved as soon as possible and they should not hinder the accession process, stated the European Commission.

The EC also urges the Balkan countries to increase their cooperation while at the same time welcoming the summit in Berlin, held this in August, where a strong political support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans was demonstrated. According to the EC, it could serve as an instrument to encourage reforms and be seen as a motivation to solve outstanding bilateral issues.

In an attempt to assist the countries in their accession process, the European Commission points out that €11.7 billion have been singled out for these countries until 2020 through the second Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA II).

Moreover, EU Enlargement Commission Fule on Wednesday will reveal the progress reports of the countries aspiring to join the EU for the last time before he leaves his position. Austrian politician Johannes Hahn will take up the post of Commissioner for neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations on Oct. 22.

 

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