The European Commission is expected to propose the new methodology in January, and ideally, EU member countries would adopt it by March. Regarding the date, whether it’s March or May depends on whether North Macedonia sends clear signals it has understood what matters most to the Union, according to Francois Lafond, an adviser sent by the French government to the Deputy Prime Minister in the Secretariat for European Affairs.
In this interview, the French expert living and working in Skopje says that negotiations have to lead to EU membership.
“There’s no reason to open negotiations and say, ‘No problem, it can take 10-15 years; this is not so important.’ It is important,” Lafond says.
“Because then you are undermining the capacity of the EU to comply with the proposal and the hope of the people.
“If we open [negotiations], this is to make sure you will be a member of the EU, and not just open [for the sake of opening them] because it makes you happy and then say, ‘OK, let’s go slowly, 10-15 years, we don’t care.’ This is not the purpose of the new methodology.
“The point,” he adds, “is that we get a date and then continue to reform, modernize, and prepare the country for a better future.”
Mr. Lafond, would you please give us your assessment of the non-paper?
The non-paper is explaining the position of the French President during the European Council in October. During the EC, there was this discussion among all the heads of state and governments to give a date to open the negotiations. The discussion was quite long—more than 4-5 hours until late in the evening—and in the end, there was a kind of a non-decision. It was less of a veto than a non-decision because the formulation is, “We will revert to this issue before the Zagreb Summit in May.” So the question was postponed after a long discussion.
This was the third time it was postponed, right?
Yes, it was [postponed] already in June 2018. But if you read the conclusions of the EC, you’ll see four sectors where the EC was looking for a better situation: the reform of the justice [system], the intelligence, the administration reform, and the fight against corruption. So they didn’t take any decision in June 2018, but they explained what should be done to get a date. And then, in June 2019, it was the same.So the non-paper is an explanation of why the French President did not want to give a date. If you listen to the press conference he gave just after the EC, you’ll see there are two kinds of arguments. The first pillar of arguments is about the EU as it is now. It’s not working so well. He explained why. The second pillar was about why we need to renew the enlargement methodology. We have to make sure that when we start negotiations with a country, the process is working better than the current one. Why did he say that? Remember that we are still negotiating with Turkey for the last 14 years. The process is not so efficient.
The same with Montenegro and Serbia. It was opened six years and eight years ago. So when this year the EC proposed the opening of some chapters, the member states said, “No, because the situation is not going in the direction we’d like to see.”So the point of the French President was to say, “Maybe we have to find a better methodology with three or four criteria.”
One is to have reversibility. Once we open negotiations, if they’re not going very well, or if the country is changing its mind, we need to have the legal tools to stop and go back if this is not working. Then he mentioned the political dimension. He said maybe the member states should be a bit more involved in this process. Of course, they already are, they can open chapters or not, and you need unanimity. But he wanted to make sure that eventually there are more visible political elements from the member states during the negotiation process, too.
The third dimension he considered is that citizens are not feeling any progress during the negotiations process. So we opened negotiations, but on the ground, citizens don’t feel it and haven’t seen any specific programs. What the French President wanted is to have more visibility, a clearer perception of the enlargement process for the citizens.
That means to have specific programs. Of course, North Macedonia is already in the Erasmus program, 2020, and other EU activities, but we could try to find more programs (and correlated financing) so that citizens understand we have opened a certain number of chapters, and they are definite.
The last element of the non-paper was to put together a group of sectors—beyond chapters, as is the current practice—which could make a better understanding and better feeling in some of it. After the non-paper was put on the desk, we got another proposal, from nine countries: the Italian, Austrian, and the Baltic countries.
Now everything is in the hands of the European Commission – to propose new methodology around mid-January.
Is it possible for the EU Commission to present this new methodology in January?
Yes, yes. This is the objective of everybody, even the French government.
The French government asked the European Commission to come back. Because we were also in the process of getting a new Commission, with a new Commissioner who had to set his team members.
Now everything is in place at the EU level. We have a new architecture, with the President of the European Council, President of the Commission and all the Commissioners. The member states asked the Commission to propose a document in general, so I presume the new Commissioner will publish a communication of the European Commission where they will explain how they should see the new methodology taking into account some elements of what the French wanted and maybe also considering some points indicated in the other document proposed by the nine countries. So the answer is yes, generally.
But the debate in the EU should finish in March 2020. Can European countries reach consensus that fast? It’s only two months.
Yes. The timing is a bit difficult. It’s March because it’s the next European Council, and then after, in May, there will be the Zagreb summit with all the member states’ and the Western Balkan countries’ heads of state and governments. So in an ideal situation, it could be March. As was mentioned in the conclusions of the European Council, we should make a decision before the Zagreb summit on May 6-7. So it could be March. I don’t know what the proposal of the Commission and the new methodology will be. We don’t know the situation in the countries, both Albania and North Macedonia, or what will happen. Because the point is also to make sure the countries are continuing to do the reforms, and to be best prepared to start the negotiations. Last summer was not a great summer for North Macedonia. All this corruption dimension put the country, yet again, in not such a good light. So we need to make efforts here to make sure some elements we mentioned—the fight against corruption, making sure the judiciary structure is working correctly after that special prosecutor is not anymore in action—[are addressed and] there’s a certain number of reforms taken by the country.
So if everything is going correctly on both sides—at the national level here and at the European level—why not in March? But the point is to make sure that we’ll get the date. The sooner the better, with the condition that then the process is working correctly. It was one of the things the French President mentioned.
You mentioned reforms North Macedonia country should focus on, especially the new Law on the Public Prosecution. Bearing in mind that the country is having a caretaker government with a limited agenda, how will this affect the prospects for the date?
The problem is, the parliament will not work until Feb. 12. But at least there’s still the capacity of it to work for two months. There’s still room for good decisions and progress in certain domains. If all political parties are for EU accession as they’re saying, they should be capable of agreeing on reforms to reassure the European Commission that they’re really committed to the wellbeing of the country. Otherwise, we’ll see this is just a game; this is political games, and this is one reason we didn’t get the Law on the SPO. The opposition didn’t want to give to the majority this gift before the election. A two-thirds majority was not possible. If the parties are committed to the European trajectory, they will understand that this moment is more important than their political games. So I presume that even if there is a caretaker government, we could have some things get done.
I’m thinking about the Anticorruption Commission, for example. Everybody knows this Commission is missing human resources and budget. This is not so difficult to decide, to show everybody we put more money and try to get people to make sure the work is done correctly, despite the political situation before the election.
I see you are very optimistic about this…
I want to make sure that the French President and the others understand that we want something. Otherwise, in the end, they will consider they were right to say no if they see the country is not serious. If getting a date to open negotiations is really the main objective for the last two or three years, everybody has to make some effort.
You have insight into the public administration. Are we ready to start negotiations?
The country is ready to open negotiations. The Secretariat for European Affairs is ready because they’ve been preparing for more than 15 years. Thirty percent of the /acquis communautaire/, the EU legislation, has already been integrated into the country’s legislation. So you are already on the EU trajectory, and the administration is ready to continue. The administration needs the date so it stays motivated because, without a date, people feel demotivated. This is not just for the Secretariat, but also all the country, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so on. The country is ready to open [talks], and then we have to work a lot to make sure things are going in the right direction. And then, of course, there will be some adaptation, some change, and progress.
What do you think about the new EU Commission’s stance on the enlargement process?
All the new faces of the EU are in favor of the Balkans, all sixcountries, to become EU members when they’re ready. Just look at the map, and you’ll understand why the Balkan countries should become EU members. Otherwise, we will have some difficulty to be a global power and tell the US, Russia, and China what to do if we’re not capable of having a situation that’s stabilized.
We should make sure that all in the Western Balkans are aware of this because there are still problems in the countries. Things are not going as quickly and well as expected. The politicians should be more aware of what is at stake. And it’s not only up to the Commission, but in the end, member states. Understand that enlargement is not so well perceived in some countries. In the Netherlands, Germany, and France, there’s some reluctance to new countries coming into the EU.
But most EU members want a stronger EU with a common foreign policy, which will go into important topics such as the Green Deal proposed last week. We need to make a big effort, financially, and in the reorganization of our economic model. There are still some efforts Paris, Berlin, and Brussels need to do.
Will the new methodology apply to candidates only or also countries who have already started talks?
Depends on the new methodology, if the methodology helps Montenegro and Serbia close some chapters. What’s important is that countries starting negotiations finish the process. Also, how it will work for Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina? I don’t know. The real intent of the French President was to say the current process is not working. It was conceived 15 years ago, and the last enlargement in 2004 was not successful in certain aspects. So let’s make sure we try to find the right way for these countries to become members of the EU. That’s it.
Finally, can we expect an officially renewed EU negotiations methodology by March and a date at the Zagreb summit in May?
I still don’t know. The Commission has to present the new methodology in January. It could be very quick, and then the member states agree on it and move forward. If there are clear signals North Macedonia has understood what’s important for the member states, we could say March, if possible, or Zagreb. We have to be flexible. The point is that we get a date and then continue to reform, modernize, and prepare the country for a better future.
*first published in: “Mils news”