Saturday, November 04, 2006

Macedonia awaits spring thaw on EU enlargement

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Macedonia believes French elections in spring 2007 and a pick-up in the European economy will clear the way for starting EU accession talks in 2007 or 2008, foreign minister Antonio Milososki told EUobserver in an exclusive interview on Friday (27 October).

"We think that after the elections in France, renewed energy is going to come to this European debate [on enlargement fatigue], that Europe is going to be more able to overcome these difficulties," the minister said.

"We are happy that the economic situation in Europe is also gradually improving. This is a factor that will positively influence the feelings of [European] people concerning immigrants, concerning newcomers, concerning this sensitivity on enlargement," he added.

The timetable could see: an 8 November EU report praising Macedonian political reform but voicing worry over mounting ethnic tensions; 22 April French presidential elections; the German EU presidency soon after setting a date for EU-Macedonia accession talks to start in 2007 or 2008 and EU entry in 2012 or 2013, Mr Milososki indicated.

"We are asking for a date [for starting accession talks], because being a candidate country without a date is like arranging a wedding without music and so we can not start with the wedding," he explained.

EU enlargement fatigue came to the fore after French voters rejected the draft EU constitution in mid-2005 in a move linked to popular feeling that EU expansion is out of control, with the 2004 wave seeing 10 countries join the bloc and with Romanian and Bulgarian accession looming next year.

"Absorption capacity" - the concept that EU institutions can not function in their present form with any more member states - is also emerging in Brussels as a new enlargement criterion alongside formal "Copenhagen Criteria" on democracy, human rights and market economy standards.

"Macedonia is a country with a population the size of Paris, without counting the [Paris] suburbs. That is not an entity that could disturb any absorption capacity of the EU," the Macedonian foreign minister said on his 2.1 million-strong country. "We are happy to be small."

Balkan frontrunner
All the Western Balkan states are officially heading for EU entry with Croatia (which began accession talks in October 2005) and Macedonia (which gained EU candidate status in December 2005), ahead of Bosnia, Albania and Montenegro and with Serbia and Kosovo tied up in war crimes and sovereignty disputes.

On paper, the EU says that "every country will be measured according to its merits" when it comes to accession, but some EU diplomats say the bloc is tightening membership criteria and is treating Balkan hopefuls as a "group of future members" that will stay "on hold" for several years.

Macedonia's internal political conflict - with ethnic-Albanian opposition party DUI and the ruling Macedonian conservative party VMRO-DPMNE at each other's throats since 5 July elections - is "accidentally serving well" Brussels' reluctance to press ahead with Balkan enlargement, one EU diplomat stated.

Stability at risk
"We are watching very closely the relations between the government and the Albanian opposition, because it's very important for the stability of the country," the contact told EUobserver.

The DUI has vowed to topple the government on grounds it can't be trusted to implement the 2001 so-called "Ohrid Agreement" on protecting the country's 500,000-strong ethnic Albanian minority, with corruption issues and a 35 percent unemployment rate also damaging Skopje's EU readiness credibility.

Recent "direct contact" between DUI leader Ali Ahmeti and VMRO-DPMNE prime minister Nikola Gruevski is "the best possible sign" of softening interethnic relations, foreign minister Milososki argued, adding that Skopje and Brussels have successfully built a "multiethnic functional democracy" in Macedonia in the past 13 years.

"We are proud of that," the foreign minister said.

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