Sunday, May 26, 2024

HOPE IN SKOPJE AND TIRANA: WHAT CAN CROATIA’S PRESIDENCY WITH EU BRING?

This methodology has not been rejected by either Skopje or Tirana. The Zagreb Summit may therefore be of historic importance to the Balkans as the EU fulfills its promise to Albania and North Macedonia, setting the long-awaited date for the opening of membership talks.

Author: Xhelal Neziri

Joining the European Union (EU) in 2013, Croatia has taken over the  presidency of the European Council for the first time since 1 January. This Balkan country applied for membership in 2003, and a year later received candidate status. In 2005, when North Macedonia also received candidate status, Croatia began membership negotiations that lasted for eight years.

North Macedonia failed to move further in the integration process due to the anti-Greek policy promoted by VMRO-DPMNE that came to power in 2006, when Nikola Gruevski was elected prime minister. The renaming of roads and institutions, anti-colonization and interference with Macedonian ethnic identity to adopt ancient history and incitement of hatred against Greece had increased support for Gruevski’s electorate, as well as the Greek veto of EU and NATO integration. At the NATO Summit in Bucharest, organized in 2008, Greece for the first time used the right to block Skopje’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, leaving only Albania and Croatia to become new members at this summit. 

Because of  similar values shared by NATO and the EU, countries first join the Alliance and then the Union. Croatia had started negotiations in 2008 for three years, and after five years of Alliance membership, it achieved its second strategic goal – a seat in the EU. This, however, did not happen with Albania, which applied for Union membership in 2009, and only after five years – in 2014 – will gain candidate status. While North Macedonia has had major setbacks with Greece – the name of the state – and with Bulgaria – history and language, Albania has had problems with organized crime, corruption and a lack of consensus and compromise culture for highest state issues.

Croatia took over the EU presidency from Finland, which has used the six-month mandate for European policy guidance to recover European values – media freedom and judicial independence – problems that have begun to emerge in some Central European member states. After six months, the presidency had to be given to Germany, a country that in 2014, just one year after Croatia joined the Union, launched the so-called Berlin Process, which envisions accelerating Western Balkan membership.

And in the next six months, the newer EU member will have to deal with three serious Union problems: the exit of Britain, the adoption of the long-term budget 2021-2027 and the unblocking of the Western Balkan countries’ integration process. After the convincing victory of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, which strongly favors Brexit, Britain’s exit now seems to me a matter of time. This will, however, cause vibrations within the EU that could slow down economic growth and expansion with new countries, as it will leave a 13 billion euro gap in the UK’s fund.

Adoption of the Long-Term Budget is also expected to cause major debate and divisions within the Union due to the often-conflicting interests of key EU member states. Members have not only clashed on spending and budget allocation, but also on the creation of a new conditionality on EU funding related to respecting the rules of law. Regarding the third problem, Croatia is expected to have an increased commitment to remedy the consequences of the undeserved French veto on Skopje and Tirana, which was used by French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Council Summit in October last year.

This veto led to the termination of the mandate of the government led by Zoran Zaev, which signed agreements with Greece and Bulgaria that contain hard compromises, and slowed the reforms of the justice system in Albania. At the same time, France also demotivated governments in Pristina and Belgrade to follow the path of North Macedonia and thus resolve the major historical issue between the two states – reconciliation and mutual recognition.

Until the EU summit in Zagreb, scheduled for May this year, the European Council must again assemble and adopt the new methodology of the negotiation process with the aspirant countries, which was used as an alibi by France to place a veto to North Macedonia and Albania. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in recent days has warned that this methodology will soon be known to the public and the same will be discussed with aspirant countries from the Western Balkans. What is expected to include, among other things, is the possibility that the negotiation process is reversible, which means that closed chapters could be reopened if the values of the sphere contained there are violated. In addition, France has proposed that the chapters will not be 35 as it was until now, but should be grouped in smaller numbers, while integration being gradual and followed by concrete funding.

This methodology has not been rejected by either Skopje or Tirana. The Zagreb Summit may therefore be of historic importance to the Balkans as the EU fulfills its promise to Albania and North Macedonia, setting the long-awaited date for the opening of membership talks. Such a decision would also positively reflect on both Belgrade and Pristina to commit themselves seriously to reach a historic agreement that would eventually pacify the Balkans. Croatia is likely to be the leader that will bring good news to the candidate countries. As a recent member, she knows well the feeling of how it is to wait in front of the Brussels’s doors.  In addition, for that, Skopje and Tirana must prove the expected maturity – to adopt urgent reforms and to conduct democratic elections.

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