As part of her Western Balkan tour, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Skopje on 28 September – to express her strong commitment to the EU future of North Macedonia and the region in overcoming ‘the last hurdle’ towards the start of membership negotiations with the country.
‘You have a partner in me, a strong supporter. And I want these accession negotiations opened with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible. I call on you not to lose faith. We have gone so far, you have gone such a long way, you have made so much progress. I really commend you for that. Now let us go this extra mile, it will really pay off […] Let us work hard, so that we reach our goal to have the first Intergovernmental Conference before the end of the year, that is our common goal’, von der Leyen stated at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, where the issue between North Macedonia and Bulgaria was among the topics. The EC President stated that there were ‘very good ideas worth going in depth’.
The press conference took place at Skopje’s Youth Cultural Centre, previously renovated with EU funds. The Centre hosted an exhibition showcasing the benefits of the Youth Guarantee, an EU-funded project (implemented for the first time outside the Union) that helps the employment of young people. A symbol of ‘what we can achieve together’, as the President put it, before handing over to the PM the grant of EUR 2.6 million as part of the EU’s wider budget support for youth education and employment to a total value of EUR 15 million - an investment in “youth and in our common future”.
This is only a small part of the EU’s continuous assistance for the country to cope with the social and economic consequences of the Covid 19 pandemic. North Macedonia has received EUR 220 million in grants and financing, including for much needed medical supply and as support for the healthcare system. The EU has so far donated 275,000 vaccine doses to North Macedonia with more coming in the next period. Von der Leyen called on all to get vaccinated ‘because we do not want to have a pandemic of the unvaccinated with all the risks of variants”.
For the sake of a lasting recovery of North Macedonia and the region, the EU has developed the Economic and Investment Plan. This plan, as the President said, requires quality projects from the Western Balkan countries so that it can be a joint success in building a greener and a more digital future, marked by growth and new jobs. It is a huge opportunity offering investment of up to EUR 30 billion across the region.
In addition to meeting the PM, together with Deputy Prime Minister for European affairs Nikola Dimitrov, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani and Minister of Defence Radmila Shekerinska, von der Leyen also had talks with President Stevo Pendarovski.
The visit took place ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Slovenia on 6 October. ‘There we will chart the course of our common future. I also want you to fully take part in the Conference on the Future of Europe because North Macedonia has a lot to contribute. We have seen the young people, we want to hear their voices. It is their future, they should shape the Conference on the Future of Europe because it is their and our common European future’, said the EC President.