Distinguished members of the Podgorica Club,
As President of the Republic of North Macedonia, it is my pleasure to participate in this regional conference of the Podgorica Club, for two reasons.
Regional cooperation is key to the development of our countries. We need to connect at all levels, from political, economic, to infrastructural. There are many regional initiatives in our region that include current presidents, prime ministers and ministers. I will point out only two complementary initiatives – the Berlin Process and the Brdo-Brijuni Process. But, like it or not, current politicians are often burdened with daily political issues. So far, we lacked an influential platform for open and substantive dialogue, free of daily political dynamics. You offer something new. I believe that the Podgorica club, as a council of experienced leaders, will fill this vacuum in. You are already doing this with your ambitious vision of the Western Balkans 2030, a vision free of the past and history, fully focused on the present and the future.
The second reason I am here today with you is to talk about the right question at the right time – “EU enlargement at Crossroads”.
You all know that this is a very important period for us. Last week, North Macedonia received the best and most positive European Commission Progress Report. We received a clear and unconditional recommendation to start the accession negotiations for membership in the European Union.
It was not easy at all to get here. I will remind you that only a few years ago, in its 2015 Progress Report, the European Commission identified a culture of political divisions, lack of political dialogue and stagnation in many fields. In contrast, in this year’s Report, the Commission recognizes that we have undoubted progress, as well as the attitude towards neighbors which is of a wider regional and European interest.
In a very short time, we managed to solve decade-long issues. With the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation with Bulgaria and the Prespa Agreement with Greece, we showed our political courage to close all open issues in the spirit of good neighborly relations. With these two agreements, we have changed the paradigm of good neighborly relations and regional cooperation. North Macedonia is the only country in the region without open issues with its neighbors, but only open prospects.
In addition, we take the necessary steps and carry out substantive and strenuous reforms in many key areas. We align our internal, external and security policies with the European Union policies.
Through increased transparency and accountability of the key decision-makers, we restore the trust of the citizens in the institutions. We are moving forward in the field of justice and rule of law reforms. We are aware that we have a lot of work to do, but we do everything in our power to achieve meaningful democratic progress for the citizens. As a result of our commitment, I do not exaggerate when I say that we are ready to start accession negotiations with the European Union.
Membership in NATO and the European Union is our highest strategic priority that unites all segments of our multiethnic democratic society. There is a complete political, interethnic and social consensus on our integration.
In the past two days, North Macedonia hosted the historic visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the North Atlantic Council. At the meeting, I pointed out that by sending us a membership invitation, NATO showed that it can appreciate and value our political courage for solving difficult issues in our region with a compromise. I expressed hope that the European Union will follow the example of NATO and will set a date for the start of the negotiations for membership of North Macedonia.
Membership negotiations will be a cohesive factor in our multiethnic society. The date will motivate the state institutions to responsibly implement the essential reforms necessary for an inclusive, stable and functional democracy. Only with concrete steps will the European Union seal the European orientation of our country and neutralize the retrograde rhetoric in the region. Let us not forget that the integration into the Union is the basic common denominator of all the Western Balkans countries. This is what prompts us all to cooperate for the sake of our society and for the benefit of our citizens.
Precisely because of the irreplaceable role of enlargement for our region, the European Union should remain consistent with the high expectations it has created among the citizens.
Last year, the EU’s Western Balkans Strategy was adopted which provides objective criteria for enlargement of the Union by valuing the merits of each country individually. The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, also stressed that if the Union wants more stability in the neighborhood, it must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to remind that with the signing of the Prespa Agreement last year, we have made one of the most difficult decisions since our independence. We rightly expected the European Council to positively assess that bold step and set us a date for negotiations. But, that did not happen. The postponement of the negotiation date negatively affected the outcome of the referendum on the name issue.
I believe that other countries in the region have found themselves in a similar situation. If North Macedonia and Albania are not given a date to start membership negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina a positive opinion about the membership application, instead of substantial progress, there will be a disappointment in the region.
Regarding the most difficult issues, we did our job. Now, it is for the European Council to do its part – our citizens to receive the well-deserved date to start the accession negotiations. The recommendation for the start of membership negotiations for North Macedonia will also be a test for the credibility of the Union’s enlargement policy.
Any further delay in negotiations will violate the credibility of the European Union, demotivate the citizens, slow the reform process and negatively affect the stability of the region. The only way to permanently prevent the spread of malignant geopolitical influences in our region is a consistent extension of the enlargement policy of both the European Union and NATO.
Esteemed Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the very end, let me summarize. As President of the Republic of North Macedonia, I expect leadership and determination from the European Union. I expect the date for the start of the membership negotiations to be set promptly. It is a winning combination for all stakeholders. North Macedonia, its citizens and institutions will be strongly motivated and focus on reforms, the Western Balkan region will get a strong encouraging signal for the European perspective, and the European Union will confirm its credibility in terms of its most successful policy – the enlargement policy. Only in this way will we be able to make up for the lost decade, and to build a European state from North Macedonia and a just, humane and progressive society.
Once again, I thank you for your invitation and wish you a successful conference and fruitful work at the Podgorica Club.