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Thank you very much. Dear Zoran [Zaev, Prime Minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia], ministers, friends, it is for me really an honour, but it is also somehow a personal emotion to bring here directly from Strasbourg – and this morning I was in Tirana – the good news that the European Commission decided to recommend
to the Council to open negotiations for the accession of your country to the European Union. You are back. You are back on track.
And if I think of the situation I found exactly one year ago during my last visit here in Skopje and where you are today: hosting, on a day just like this one, a Digital Summit, Commissioner Hahn, my visit to celebrate good news - that would also bring new work, I will come to that – and hosting tonight - thank you for that - a dinner with the other Prime Ministers of the other five partners of the Western Balkans. You have gone a long way.
And yes the good news is this: you are back, you are back on track and the assessment that the European Commission has made, merit-based, is that the conditions that were put last time have been met and that we recommend the Council to take the decision to open negotiations.
I think this is a major achievement you have to be proud of, you can celebrate - for half a day and then go back to work. But this is an achievement that, as you rightly mentioned Mr Prime Minister, is an achievement not only for the government, it is an achievement for all the institutions of the country, from the President, to the government, to the Parliament, to the local authorities, to the civil society, to the citizens of this country. And that has also involved the capacity from the majority and from the opposition to work together.
This is probably my first message: acknowledging the fact that this result is a joint result for both the government and the opposition, that it gives both the government and the opposition the responsibility to join forces for the coming steps to be taken. Having the acknowledgement means that then you share the responsibility also for the future. And here I am passing this message. The government has the responsibility to open up the space for the full participation of the opposition. And the opposition has the responsibility of engaging in determining this sort of national unity on some issues, not on all.
I, myself, come from a country where political polarisation is quite relevant. There I do not think you run the risk of having identical agendas across the political spectrum. This is definitely not the risk you are running. But yes, the risk is there of not advancing or even backtracking, if you do not manage the political forces, do not manage to identify the national priorities that are priorities of all the citizens of this country so that the institutions can work to achieve them.
And you have managed to do this. This is a recognition - as I said - both to the governments and to the work you have managed to do together with the opposition and the high expectation is that this spirit, this method, this way can continue. Let me say here that again thinking of where we were last year, I am glad to see that the opposition is back in the Parliament and I will be very honoured tomorrow to address the Parliament here in Skopje.
By the way, let me also mention that after this meeting with the Prime Minister and with the colleagues from the government, I will also meet the President [of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Gjorge Ivanov], the opposition leader [Hristijan Mickoski] and the Vice-President of the Assembly [Goran Misovski]. For me, this is really important to have this sort of "all of the country" approach.
Let me also say that the good news I am bringing from the Commission brings also more work to be done. We were joking before that it is a little bit like a video game: every time you get to one stage, you get to the following level and the challenges increase, but you also get extra points so somehow you are rewarded.
At the end of the day, as a reward, you are perfectly right: it is not about institutions, it is not about procedures, it is not about negotiations, the real reward is the improvement of the life of the citizens and it is all about this. Having European standards, having developments on economy and trade, and how the institutions work, governance, and the quality of life that counts for every single citizen of Europe - and by the way you are already Europe, we are talking here about the process towards being a member of the European Union that can be opened in the coming months.
The next level of the video game is, first of all, the implementation of the reforms. The recommendation mentioned two magic words which are maintaining and deepening the reforms. This is it. This is all about transforming these reforms you have identified, this commitment you have taken more and more into reality, every single day.
This will be the merit, the substance on which all the further steps will be based, including the confidence of your people in institutions - not only in the national ones but also the European ones. Because being transparent, firm and strict is also the best guarantee for appropriate results to be delivered and delivery is the key. But again, you have delivered so much in such a little time and I am very much confident that this energy will continue and this work will continue.
I would also recognise and acknowledge the impressive steps you have made in addressing regional dynamics and bilateral relations with your neighbours. On the regional dynamics, again, tonight we will have a meeting here with all the six Prime Ministers of the region. If you think back four or five years ago this would have been - to say the minimum - strange or difficult, now it is the normal, the new normal and it is a very good new normal, because this part of the Western Balkans is fully part of the European continent.
I often say it is not even a matter of enlargement to me. Maybe it is because of my generation or of my geographical origin - the Adriatic is a very small sea. This is about the reunification of Europe and this is about also bringing the European Union project back to the DNA of the European Union, which is bringing peace and reconciliation on the European soil.
So you have a big responsibility, that of ensuring that European people can face the future with hope and confidence in living together. And the European Union can be that framework that can ensure that this is possible after difficult decades, and centuries, and thousands of years. But we do not go back to history, we look ahead. You have managed to develop and to contribute to very good neighbourly relations in the region, very good regional dynamics. The digital summit today was another demonstration of it, the dinner we are having tonight again is another one. We are going to have a Summit in Sofia at the end of May that would be also extremely important.
You have managed to solve, as you mentioned, a bilateral issue you had with Bulgaria, an important European Union country that is holding now the presidency of the European Union and is a one of the strongest supporters of our work with the Western Balkans.
I think that you are doing a remarkable job - and I would like to thank you in particular, not only you Mister Prime Minister [Zoran Zaev] but also the Foreign Minister [Nikola Dimitrov], for his dedication - in the dialogue and negotiations with Greece. We support and we encourage this process in all possible ways and I hope that a solution that can be mutually accepted can be found soon. I believe that this would be an extremely positive development, vunder U.N. auspices. We are obviously ready to accompany this process in every single step and to encourage it in all its stages. By the way, I believe that also this will require and requires already a certain degree of national unity that I am sure you are going to guarantee it and the opposition is going to guarantee it, and the rest of the institutions as well.
Let me conclude by saying this is a good day and I am sure that this is not going to be the last good day we celebrate together.
Questions & Answers
Q. Today we have heard the reaction from Greece that there is no time for a solution of the name dispute by the Sofia Summit in June, nor the issue of the dispute will be resolved without the demand from Greece to change the Constitution. Do you believe in a negotiation date by June or we will wait for at least one more year?
FM: The Commission, yesterday, took the decision to recommend to the Council to take the decision to open negotiations. Now it is obviously for the Council at end of June to take that decision. But - as I said - the merit-based assessment has been completed and positive. I cannot obviously speculate on what kind of decision the 28 Member States and the European Council in June, which is still in quite some time, will take. I guess that they might not be able themselves today to tell you 100% what kind of decision they will take. Two months and a half ago more or less, you would not have bet on the fact that the Commission would have taken a completely positive recommendation yesterday. Time is here to be used properly, wisely, courageously, as it has been the case in these last ten months and you have done steps that ten months ago or twelve months ago were not even imaginable.
I am a 'Balkan optimist' which - I guess - qualifies me for being a global optimist. I think that time is there, time can be used as it has been used positively both by you and by Greece in these weeks and months of negotiations and talks. I think that, yes, a result is possible. It is not for me to enter into the content of it, it is a bilateral negotiation in the UN framework, but I believe it is possible, and I believe that the June European Council can take positive decisions, definitely yes. Otherwise we would not have made a recommendation in that sense.
Q: What will be the topic of your discussion at the meeting with the Prime Ministers from the region here in Skopje today?
FM: First of all, I am enough familiar with the region - I tend to say that I am from the region - to know that whatever topic you determine before, especially if you meet over a working dinner, you end up discussing of everything. So my expectation would be very much like that.
But the purpose of the meeting is, first of all, to keep the regularity of it. We met with the leaders of the region just a month ago in Sofia together with also President [of the European Commission, Jean-Claude] Juncker. And it is I think a very good thing in itself to have regular meetings of the Prime Ministers, of the leaders of the Western Balkan six and myself or other colleagues from the European Union institutions, because this helps creating not only the confidence but also the open, direct, frank, constructive channels that partners – I can say partners but actually it is more than partners - have among themselves. And also it helps a lot and accompanies enormously I believe the good cooperation within the region. Because it is very clear to me and I think it is very clear to all here and I know very well it is very clear here in Skopje and it is very clear to you that the region has a common future and that, rather than the competition among different players, what has made and what is making the region advance, especially on the European Union path, is this cooperative approach, which is new and which is I think extremely valuable for the citizens of the region.
But we will definitely discuss obviously the package we adopted yesterday that concerns not only your country, but also all the others. So that would be also an opportunity for us to discuss it together. And I imagine also to discuss ways in which the different countries can help each other, support each other, or solve issues that could be there. I think it will be a very valuable moment, also it could be an opportunity for the Prime Ministers, to come together and exchange views also with me on the preparation of the Sofia Summit that is in just one month's time.
So the agenda is long. The risk is that we go from dinner to breakfast and I am sure we do not have a lack of arguments and issues for common exchanges. But again, I would like to thank Zoran, the Prime Minister, very much for hosting this. It is I think a very good sign and I am very pleased that this takes place here today. Thank you.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I154194