Macedonia's EU entry rests on mayors
Last week the European Commission produced a favourable opinion on the application for EU membership from Macedonia. Yet it seemed in no hurry for negotiations
to begin, suggesting that the Council of Ministers should consider the matter only in December 2006.
By Dick Leonard
Presenting the Commission's opinion, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn made clear that Macedonia still needed to make further progress before it reaches "a sufficient degree of compliance with the membership criteria". He mentioned, in particular, the need to make additional efforts to implement reforms in the judiciary and the police, to strengthen the effectiveness of the fight against corruption, and to improve the electoral process.
Macedonia needed to improve its business climate and become more attractive for both domestic and foreign investors, he said. Meanwhile, the Commission will continue to monitor developments, and will present a further report to the Council by the end of next year.
Although the Macedonian government is delighted that the Commission has delivered a positive opinion, its unrealistic hopes that the country's progress towards membership should march step-by-step with Croatia's, with whom negotiations started on 3 October, have been dashed. This is partly due to the Commission's more cautious approach to future enlargement, following the French and Dutch referenda on the EU constitution, but it is also a recognition that Croatia is clearly more advanced in its preparations.
As it is, Macedonia will be lucky if its negotiations open in 2007 and are completed no more than a couple of years after Croatia's, but still probably comfortably ahead of Turkey's. Unless things go badly wrong, it will be the third successor state of Yugoslavia to achieve membership, with Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and perhaps an independent Kosovo, bringing up the rear.
That Macedonia is now on the verge of achieving candidate status is a tribute to the far-seeing decisions taken by the EU four years ago, when the country was on the verge of disintegration or a possible civil war between its Macedonian and Albanian communities. Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for foreign policy, took the initiative in negotiating the Ohrid Agreement, which brought peace to the country and led two years later to the EU assuming responsibility for the small peacekeeping force previously deployed by NATO.
The implementation of Ohrid was almost aborted by the death in an air crash of its principal Macedonian architect, President Boris Trajkovski in February 2004. Yet under his successor, Branko Crvenkovski, and Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, who more recently took over the leadership of the three-party governing coalition, it is now substantially completed.
The government is made up of the former Communists of the Social Democratic Party (SDM), the far smaller Liberal Democrats (LDP) and the more moderate of the two ethnic Albanian parties, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).
The biggest threat was a referendum, forced by the opposition, to prevent the decentralisation of power to local authorities, many of them dominated by the Albanian minority. In the event, only 26% voted in the referendum, far fewer than the 50% threshold needed for it to become binding. Although the referendum, which was largely boycotted by government supporters, showed an overwhelming majority against decentralisation, it went ahead, and elections were held in the newly delineated 85 municipalities last May. Of the 85 mayors elected, 17 came from the Albanian minority, 15 of whom represented the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).
Whether the Ohrid Agreement will bring long-term stability to the country - an essential condition for EU membership - now largely rests on the conduct of the newly elected mayors and municipal councils. There is a particular responsibility on the 17 Albanian mayors. They now have to prove to their ethnic Macedonian citizens that they will enjoy the same rights in their localities as the Albanians have demanded for themselves at the national level.
The vastly experienced Irishman Erwan Fourere, who has just arrived in Skopje to head the Commission delegation, will be monitoring the situation with great care and his reports will no doubt greatly influence if and when the membership negotiations commence.
(Dick Leonard is a former assistant editor of The Economist, Source: Economist Intelligence Unit)