Interview with the Deputy President of the Government in charge of European affairs Fatmir Besimi
The focus on this interview with Deputy Prime Minister Besimi is the dynamic of the Euro-integration process at a time when the Republic of Macedonia is facing a political and migrant crisis. The Deputy PM talks about the maximum effort put into fulfilling the reforms that were the result of EC’s progress report, as well as the Priebe report and the Przino agreement. Besimi announces the marking of the 20th anniversary of the first agreement that Macedonia has made with EU as well as the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the first organizational unit for European affairs within the Government of the Republic of Macedonia. The event will be organized by the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Secretariat for European Affairs and will take place on the day of the European Union in the form of a science conference about Macedonia’s experiences and the perspectives for our European integrations.
Mr. Besimi, can you inform us about the dynamic with which the activities related to the country’s Euro-integration process are being fulfilled in light of the last report about the progress, the contents of which was conditioned by the political crisis in the country?
The Euro-integration process is of great importance to Macedonia, as are the reforms which are part of that process. As I have said several times before, the political climate in the country and the recent events are certainly influencing the dynamic and quality of the process. It is why we received a report with a conditional recommendation – primarily to overcome the political crisis, but also to implement the urgent priority reforms. The reforms, laws and other tasks are just one aspect of the process, which also consists of several others. First and foremost, it must be transparent. We have had several initiatives for increasing the transparency such as publishing the usage of IPA funds from the EU, publishing the NPAA program and publishing the action plan for the implementation of urgent reform priorities. The second aspect is the inclusion related to every institution, the political specter government – opposition and the civil sector.
They are all included in different debates and discussion. The latest part of this aspect has been announced with the Euro-integration council and MASA, thus including the academic community through MASA and the universities resulting in more discussions and greater inclusion in the integration process as well as better quality. Young people will also be included. There are several campaigns in place for inclusion of the young people through student debates on different topics as well as introduction to European values for children from elementary and high schools. Being part of the EU is not just about changing the laws, but also preserving our traditional and cultural values while embracing the European values as the norm of a developed democratic society. These are very important moments regarding the quality and improvement of our mentality in relation to the EU, respect for diversity and respect for democratic values which would ultimately place us all in one family with an open and fair competition based on transparent and equal principles that everybody will have to abide to. This year, the SEA and Macedonia will mark the 20th anniversary of the first agreement between Macedonia and EU and the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the first organizational unit for European affairs within the Macedonian Government. A science conference is planned in cooperation with MASA regarding Macedonia’s experiences and the perspectives of our European integrations that will take place on the Day of the EU.
The elections have been moved to June 5th, at the insistence of the opposition and at the request of the international community, which has reflected on the implementation of the reforms. How does this prolonged political instability influence the integration process?
As I mentioned, the political condition influences the course and quality of the reforms because the focus is on the political situation in the country. It also has an effect on the capacity of the domestic institutions, which are very important to the entire reform process. When talking about reforms, I would like to highlight their importance for citizens and the country, not only for filling out forms in Brussels, where they assess Macedonia"s readiness for accession talks. They are exceptionally important for us, for the democratic principles. Elections have also become part of the conditions that Macedonia needs to meet in its Euro-integration process. It is very important that reforms are implemented as soon as possible so that we can focus more on the economy and investments. When mentioning this in the context of the dynamics of the electoral process, I take into account it needs to meet international electoral standards, democratic principles of the EU, because this process needs to be fair, democratic and inclusive, expressing the citizens" will. Those elected need to have full legitimacy and legality for the purpose of a stable government that can later implement reforms and accelerate the tempo of the country"s economic growth.
Tell us about the process of implementation of the activities regarding reform implementation after the latest progress report.
We have tried to give our best possible contribution in the continuous implementation of the reforms. A general review of the report regarding the EC recommendations was done first, followed by a closer inspection on the urgent reform priorities, the expert report, the Priebe report and the EC report, which was published late last year. Based on these reports, we came up with an Action plan which was then shared with the opposition. The plan has been discussed several times with representatives from the civil sector as well. It was also the foundation of the preparation of the accession dialogue, which continued after a two-year break. So, there is a good dynamic to the process. We have had several institutional visits, with topics ranging from rule of the democratic and fundamental rights, through media, judiciary system, public administration, to prevention of corruption, complemented by visits to other institutions that we considered to have influence on the reform process.
That document is being regularly reviewed at every government session and different minister meetings and commissions, but is also public. It was published on the website of the SEA and everyone can have access and get informed on the implementation status of these activities related to the urgent reform priorities. In light of the situation in general, it is very important for the Republic of Macedonia to show the democratic and political capacity in its effort to overcome it, but also an institutional capacity in the process of implementing the entire reform agenda. As the EC reports states, we expect the EU Council to review our situation again in June and come up with another report, which is why it is very important that we show progress during this period. Despite current political situation, reforms are an important step that we are expected to make. One of the criteria is the election process, expected to take place this year and to be fair and democratic.
Are you expecting another recommendation for Macedonia and unblocking of the process?
The latest, seventh, recommendation is conditional. If we manage to successfully implement the political agreement, democratic, fair and inclusive elections as well as progress in the reform priorities, our recommendation will remain. However, if we lag in any of these aspects then we put the recommendation in danger. We have a clear agenda ahead of us and we are responsible for the implementation of these conditions.
One of the issues that still hasn’t been resolved and represents one of the obligations from the Przino agreement concerns the media. Officially, there are no talks regarding that issue. Can we expect any movement regarding reforms in the media sector?
I would like to highlight the importance of any further action being achieved and agreed upon in the parliament. The process of media reforms should exist in continuity. It is important matter for Macedonia, not as being directly related to the elections, but as a basic fundamental right of the citizens of a democratic society. The freedom of expression is one of the key fundamental principles of every democracy and it is a process that needs constant upgrade. Unfortunately, Macedonia hasn’t been ranked in the international reports concerned with this issue as highly as we would like. Several activities have been made over the last period and I would like to emphasize that the biggest success has been achieved after a joint effort, in an inclusive way, with wide consultation with representatives of associations of journalists, media and every state institution.
This is an issue that needs years to be resolved. The first step we took was the decriminalization of defamation, followed by a new law that was put up for a wide discussion and was done in compliance with the opinion and recommendations of the Venice Commission within the European Council, the European Committee and journalist associations. The Ethics code was introduced in the public service in accordance with BBC standards. There are several provisions in the Electoral code that cover the regulation of media campaigns during elections. The government has frozen its campaigns. We are also working on a methodology that would be more transparent and more objective. There have been discussions with several institutions and representatives of journalist associations and media regarding the time frame of future changes. So, it is still work in progress. Some steps have been made, there are others yet to be made and there is certainly room for greater effort, but the implementation of the steps that have become part of the laws is very important.
How would you rate the preparations for the early parliamentary elections?
The important thing is that the State Election Commission (SEC) is professional in its work in accordance with the law and the methodologies at its disposal. This includes the cross-checks on the databases and cleaning up the electoral roll. In addition, the electoral roll has been published for future complaints and field controls. The SEC is in charge of this issue in accordance with law, which states that all of the other institutions should support this process in order for it to be finished within the deadline. In order for us to have quality elections, it is important the deadlines are met, but also that the process is of high standard. We have been given June 5th as a new date and everybody should work in resolving the issues that might arise in the meantime.
Will there be elections on June 5th?
The institutions need to make sure they do everything within their jurisdiction to provide fair and democratic elections.
Our dispute with the southern neighbor still remains an open issue, which is one of the main reasons why Macedonia hasn’t received a recommendation for accession in EU and NATO. With the NATO summit in Warsaw approaching, can we see even a hint at a solution?
This is an important issue for Macedonia and its negotiations for EU and NATO membership. It is important that Macedonia remains proactive and constructive in dealing with this open dispute with Greece. Even though it is not simple, it is very important that we reach a solution that is acceptable for both Macedonia and Greece that will pave the way for our NATO and EU membership. The membership will bring greater stability, better perspective, faster economic growth and better standard to the citizens.
It is important for Macedonia to be constructive in the process. Considering the current political situation in Macedonia, it is unclear whether there can be any progress regarding that issue. We have to be realistic about what can be done in this period, but I will reiterate my stance that Macedonia needs to be proactive in this process because the EU member-countries will judge our approach, too.
Macedonia has been facing a refugee crisis over the last year. It has affected certain processes and its image around the world. Does the migrant crisis, and if yes, to what extent, influence the Euro-integration process?
They are not directly related, but it is important for Macedonia to present itself as a country that follows the international standards for helping migrants and the decisions made by Brussels. If someone considers this a compensation for the Euro-integration processes and the reform agenda that needs to be fulfilled, or the political situation, they are wrong. These are not substitutes, but different cases altogether that have their own respective importance and Macedonia is judged on each matter separately.
Speaking about the refugee crisis and the Balkan route, Macedonia found itself in the first line of it as refugees come from Greece in order to continue their way towards Europe. Around 900.000 migrants went through Macedonia in 2015 and around 90.000 so far in 2016, which accounts for a total of around million migrants in almost a year. Those million people represent million destinies and million lives, which is why the humanitarian aspect is very important. Our country showed readiness to help in accordance with every international humanitarian standard for managing a refugee crisis and transit. It is a global process, which is why none of the countries in the region should make unilateral decisions. There must be coordinated activities and joint decisions by the EU member-countries for Balkan countries to follow. The recent summit where EU and Turkey discussed stabilizing the number of migrants headed towards EU and clarified the criteria and standards according to which migrants would be rated is an important step forward. Another important aspect is separating the refugees from economic migrants. Any other type of border closing could potentially increase illegal migrant trafficking as well as the risk for the most sensitive categories – women and children. Macedonia will continue to be a partner in the effort to overcome the migrant crisis, but it is important that there are coordinated activities between EU and the western Balkan countries.
The EU member-countries have closed the borders for the migrants, as have the countries from the Balkan route. Is there a danger of the migrants waiting at Idomeni entering Macedonia and what would be done should such a scenario occur?
Representatives of the EU Frontex mission and border control of several EU countries are present at the border upon our request so they could help us. If the agreement between EU and Turkey, followed by the one between Tsipras and Davutoglu, is realized successfully, we should expect a quick solution to the Idomeni issue. This and the Schengen issue will be discussed again at an EU summit next week. The coordinated activities are important because with each new day the uncertainty and frustration among the refugees grow, and with it, the possibility of incidents. Macedonia is just one part of the puzzle. To be honest, there are always risks of tensions and incidents. I believe that the EU countries will implement the agreements successfully and minimize the risks. The truth is that the situation in Idomeni is worrying and a quick solution is necessary.
What will happen to the 1.400 migrants currently in our country?
They should be part of the EU agreement in Brussels. If that agreement is successful, the economic migrants will be sent back. Their status needs to be defined. If they are declared refugees coming from war zones, they will receive the refugee status and be accepted by EU. However, we should not forget the humane aspect and the fact that the refugees are not criminals. Their right to be taken care of is a fundamental human right.
How much money has Macedonia received so far in order to deal with the migrant crisis?
Last year, we started a coordination process at a conference for the refugee crisis in order to clarify our needs and manage the support more efficiently. We received around 20 million euros last year, with EU contributing with 10.5 million (5.3 million euros for international organizations and 5.2 million euros for equipment and other field necessities). Around 40 million euros of aid, 10 million of which will be a contribution from EU as special refugee support, have been announced for 2016. The aid was approved in February and is expected to become effective in March. Around 50 million euros of the support we are receiving from the EU for the period 2007 – 2020, including the IPA1 and IPA2 programs, are for integrated border control and asylum policies. Those are the conditions Macedonia needs to meet in order to become part of the Schengen zone and have an integrated control system so that it could implement the asylum policy the same way as EU member-countries do.
What is the IPA fund usage percentage in Macedonia? Is it increasing and what are the funds most used on?
IPA is a system support provided to candidate countries by the EU. Macedonia is one of the first countries to start using IPA funds. Those funds reached 614 million euros for the period 2007 – 2014 and were intended for use in areas from the reform agenda, fundamental rights, rule of law, judiciary, public administration, financial and economic management, as well as economic development, good-neighborly relations, etc. Aside from using these funds, we set several goals for ourselves during this period – forming our own capacities and institutions where some of the IPA funds, as well as EU structure funds in the future, will be used. There are already more than 360 state officials involved in different institutions within the IPA structure. Those 614 million euros have resulted in 960 agreements so far from all of the institutions.
The usage percentage was around 34.5% in 2013, 44.2% in 2014, reaching 61.8% over the last period, with another 97 million euros from the IPA1 program yet to be used by the end of 2017. If completed, we would reach around 75% usage for the entire IPA program for the period 2007 – 2014. We have also made a new agreement for the IPA2 program for the period 2014 – 2020, totaling at 645 million euros. The implementation of the first IPA2 projects has begun this year. We have also increased the transparency regarding the IPA usage. It has become practice that we publish a report about everything that was completed within IPA. There is also an Action plan in place so that we can overcome our weak points and improve the usage of these funds over the next period.
Elizabeta Veljanoska Najdeska - MIA