Ambassador Geer, you recently assumed the office of new European Union Ambassador to North Macedonia. What was your previous post in Brussels and what is your experience regarding the Euro-integration process?
My immediate post, the post I occupied immediately before this was head of the sanctions team, working on the European Union sanctions. But I’ve been working for the European Union, or in the European Union’s orbit in the past 25 years and always in the area of external relations. Particularly with the countries of Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, Moldova, Caucasus, Russia, as well as in the Mediterranean. I’ve been posted in Georgia, working on Georgia and Armenia and I’ve been deputy head of delegation for the West Bank and Gaza as well.
In all of those jobs, one of the key elements in addition to developing relations with the partner country, is bringing to play all the different tools that the EU has, whether it’s our assistance, whether it’s on trade, home affairs, energy, supporting the rule of law, democratization, election observation – whole range is what I’ve been involved in. All of these elements are very relevant in the current context as we now all move towards opening accession negotiations.
You have arrived in a key period for the Macedonian Euro-integration process, at a time when the negotiating framework is set to be adopted, followed by the first Intergovernmental Conference. It would officially mark the start of the accession negotiations. Can you tell us what will the opening of the negotiations mean to the ordinary citizens?
The opening of accession negotiations will be a key milestone on the European integration path of the country. It marks an intensification of the practical work of bringing North Macedonia in line with EU legislation and standards. It covers crucial areas such as upholding democracy or the rule of law, defending human rights, creating and attracting an investment climate, protecting the environment and creating a robust market economy.
The emphasis is both on legislation and also on implementation. Essentially, the accession negotiations are actually a process of bringing the EU into North Macedonia. This process will take time, but each step forward in the negotiation process, and in particular in the implementation of reforms, should lead to tangible, positive change affecting the lives of ordinary citizens.
For example, progress on environment and protection would mean people would enjoy cleaner air and clearer surroundings. Progress on the rule of law and the fight against corruption should increase public confidence and the confidence of foreign investors in North Macedonia. So, there should be an inflow of investment and the creation of more jobs in the country. As the process gathers pace, the country will increasingly function like an EU member state providing its citizens with the rights and opportunities that EU citizens can expect.
With this prospect on the horizon, young people will increasingly see their long-term future in North Macedonia rather than abroad.
One of the EU member-states, namely Bulgaria, recently has sent a memorandum to the other Union members, in which it sets out conditions for North Macedonia’s negotiating process. Could this delay the first Intergovernmental Conference? What could it mean for North Macedonia and the region?
Let me first of all recall that for North Macedonia to be at this stage, all member states had to take the political decision, as they did in March, to launch accession negotiations. The European Commission then presented the draft negotiating framework in July and the member states are currently discussing it. This is an internal EU process during which member states present their views and positions on the document and they need to agree its final version, which needs to be adopted at the first Intergovernmental Conference. I’m sure you’ll understand that I cannot comment on internal discussions among the EU member states.
I hope that the first Intergovernmental Conference will take place as soon as possible.
Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, whose country is currently holding the EU Presidency, commenting on Bulgaria’s memorandum said that EU members should not impose new conditions and criteria. Do you think that bilateral disputes should be part of the negotiating process?
The conditions to become an EU member state were spelled out in a set of criteria agreed in Copenhagen as long ago as 1993. For the Western Balkans, good neighborly relations and regional cooperation remain essential elements of the enlargement process as well as the Stabilization and Association Process.
The Prespa Agreement as well as the Treaty on Good Neighborly Relations with Bulgaria set positive examples for the region and beyond. It’s important that these bilateral agreements continued to be implemented in good faith by all.
Do other member-states, besides Bulgaria, perhaps have expressed some reservations over the official start of the negotiations?
As I said, the discussions in Brussels are confidential and I cannot comment on the positions of individual member states. But, as I’ve mentioned already, the political decision to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia has been already taken by all member states in March.
What is needed now is for the member states to agree on the final version of the negotiating framework, which essentially opens the door to the practical start of accession negotiations.
The European Commission Progress Report for the country is expected on October 6. You said at your inaugural meetings with the Macedonian top officials that the rule of law will be the starting point and the final step in the negotiations. How do you assess the Government’s efforts in this regard?
The country has made significant progress in the area of the rule of law. If that were not the case, the Council would not have agreed to open negotiations back in March.
Nevertheless, much more is needed. Given the centrality of this issue to all aspect of reform in public life, this is a matter that will remain live during the entire accession process.
This is the case whether we are speaking about the strengthening of the judiciary, tackling organized crime, or prosecuting officials for abuse of power and corruption. We have seen movement in the right direction on all these fronts. In my first meeting with Prime Minister Zaev and members of the government, I passed a message that the country would have to increase the pace of reform in the area of rule of law and keep it up until the very end of the negotiations.
The COVID-19 crisis has affected the economy most, both within the EU and the Western Balkans. The Union has already allocated financial assistance for the regional countries and is also set to unveil a big package worth EUR 3,3 billion. Can you give us more details on the package and is it sufficient for the countries to cope with the crisis effects from a health and socio-economic standpoint, North Macedonia in particular?
The European Union’s response to the Covid pandemic in the Western Balkans region has been unique, comprehensive and substantial. From the onset, the EU rapidly shared the tools it has used to tackle the pandemic in its own member states, including shared public procurement of vital medical equipment, help to return citizens stranded abroad, access to latest information regarding the pandemic through participation in EU’s Health Security Committee and information exchange with the European Center for Diseases Protection and Control.
We are all so very proud of the financial solidarity package supporting the medical response across the region, supporting the resilience of the private sector and protecting unemployed people.
In North Macedonia, this package has included an impressive EUR 160 million of macro-financial assistance and EUR 68 million for medical supplies, financial assistance for small and micro enterprises, and unemployed persons all because of the Covid-19 pandemic. All financial resources are being delivered now and all will be completed by early next year.
Concerning the Economic and Investment Program, this comes in addition to the support already provided. It will provide opportunities in the area of transport, energy, green economy and digital. Details of the program should be announced very soon.
COVID-19 has closed North Macedonia’s borders with EU member-states. Why is the EU still relying on the rate of infections in June when deciding on the opening of the borders, when the number of infections in the EU has increased in the meantime? When can we expect the borders to reopen?
These are unprecedented times which have forced member states and other countries throughout the world to take a range of measures to contain the spread of the virus, including taking a decision to impose travel restrictions for non-essential travel. Member states revisit periodically this decision. In the EU, this list is reviewed every two weeks by the Council. Its decisions are based on trends of the pandemic as well as on the countries’ response.
Ambassador Geer, you arrived in Skopje earlier this month. What are your first impressions of North Macedonia?
My first impressions are very positive. The people I’ve met so far have been warm and welcoming and hopeful that the accession process would bring positive benefits for all. So, we all have to live up to their expectations.