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Macedonia Gets a Guarded Welcome from the EU

November 9, 2005

( Research Service)- The European Commission delivered its long-awaited verdict today, recommending Macedonia as finally fit for EU candidate status. The positive opinion, or avis, came as a breath of relief for the beleaguered SDSM-DUI government whose victories have been few and far between over the past year.

Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, fresh from his audience with President Bush in the White House, had plenty to say about the historic decision. According to Makfax, he stated that “today is the day when the question whether Macedonia will become an EU member is definitely closed… now, the question is when will Macedonia become a member of [the] EU.”

Of course, the announcement came with the expected caveats. According to MIA, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn stated the “the Commission considers that negotiations for accession to the European Union should be opened with the country once it has reached a sufficient degree of compliance with the membership criteria.” Some of the outstanding “criteria” that Rehn referred to include “serious administrative weaknesses in the judiciary and public administration.” Other reforms outstanding come in the spheres of European legislation and the economy.

The next test comes next month, with the EU Summit, when the EC’s avis needs to be approved in order to make Macedonia a candidate country for membership. “Afterwards, states MIA, “a date for entry talks will be set on all aspects of the EU membership – 32 chapters of the Union’s legislation, including trade, environment, competitiveness and health care.”

A day before the EC’s announcement, while lobbying for support in Finland, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski expressed his optimism that the country would attain official candidate status at the EU’s December summit.

In his announcement, Ollie Rehn depicted Macedonia as a “success story,” noting that “only a few years ago it was on the brink of civil war, and today it is knocking on the EU door.” Nevertheless, it’s going to be knocking for a long time to come. The positive avis and approval from the EU, should it in fact arrive, are unlikely to provide a set timeframe for accession- leaving Macedonia in a Turkey-like limbo.

At the same time Macedonia’s avis was handed down, Turkey was granted “market economy’ status, “a key hurdle on the road to full membership of the EU,” reports the BBC. Despite this positive sign, says the BBC, Turkey should look forward to spending “at least 10 years implementing promised reforms and adopting thousands of pages of European law.”

Meanwhile, other EU hopefuls have received more lukewarm signals from Brussels. Citing “overstretch,” Rehn’s new strategy paper also cautioned against taking on new enlargement challenges beyond Bulgaria and Romania (slated for a 2007 entry), the Balkans and Turkey. This came as something of a disappointment for Ukrainians. According to the EU Observer, “a high-ranked commission official said he “did not object’ to the analysis that the commission strategy paper represents bad news for Kiev’s EU aspirations.”

The EU Observer also points out that the French and Dutch rejections of the proposed EU constitution this year simultaneously did away with provisions “for institutional arrangements for integrating Turkey and Balkan states.” The current document (the Nice Treaty) only covers the 25 EU members, plus Bulgaria and Romania. “I hope member states can soon agree on what the accession of a 28th member state would mean in terms of the composition of the commission and voting rights in the council,” Rehn was quoted as saying.

While the going seems good for Macedonia, there are several potential impediments. The unresolved status of Kosovo and renewed militancy there have cast a pall over everything from international border demarcation to ethnic Albanian secession, something recently championed by opposition leader Arben Xhaferi. It is hardly implausible that spill-over violence tied to the final status negotiations could derail Macedonia’s EU ambitions.

Further is the question of Greece, which has threatened to thwart Macedonia’s European course because of the name issue dispute. On 30 October, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis stated that “there can only be an accession course to the EU in two cases. Either after a mutually acceptable solution or with the name FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). There is no other path.” Nevertheless, yesterday unnamed officials stated that they would not block Macedonia’s candidacy – at least for now. Speculation is that at the later stages of negotiations the Greeks could bring pressure to bear on finding a “compromise’ name.

In any case, the EU’s attention has been redirected inward for the time being by the ongoing rioting in France and elsewhere. The Western countries’ domestic woes, plagued by seething, impoverished immigrant suburbs, will have a ripple effect, not only giving right-wing Euroskeptics more ammunition but also probably siphoning off more public funds for alleviating the social woes of their disgruntled immigrant youth, as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has promised.

According to the Globe and Mail, France’s “economic stagnation in the ghettos will be addressed with the equivalent of $140-million in subsidies for local associations, 25,000 new government-funded jobs and 15 economic zones with lower taxes.” It’s hard to imagine that French (and probably soon to be other European) taxpayers vexed with the imminent additional burden of subsidizing what they regard as their societies’ deadweight are going to be thrilled with the idea of further EU enlargement. Indeed, as an unnamed EU official told the EU Observer, “we have to listen to citizens’ concerns.”

Given the current climate of uncertainty, Macedonia is thus likely to remain pretty far down on Europe’s priority list. While it may not take the country 10 years to implement all the reforms, and while issues like torture (which has held up Turkey) don’t seem to factor in, Macedonia will be a very different place in say, autumn 2012, the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Balkan Wars that originally dismembered it.

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