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It is a pleasure to welcome again my dear friend Zoran [Zaev] and to welcome him for the first time as the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia. It is a pleasure to welcome you together with Deputy Prime Ministers [Bujar] Osmani [for European Affairs] and Radmila Šekerinska [Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence] as well as Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. It is a pleasure to see you back in Brussels.
We had the 15th Stabilisation and Association Council
, a very positive one where we were extremely glad to see that the determination, the vision and the energy of the Prime Minister [Zoran Zaev], his government and his team remain as strong as ever. Let me add that this is really an inspiration for all of us.
Opening accession negotiations this year is and remains the strategic objective not only of the government but of the entire country. Let me say that we confirm on our side our determination to support all political forces of North Macedonia in reaching this goal which is a shared one – a shared one in national terms and a shared one in European terms.
The meeting today gave us the opportunity to discuss the numerous achievements that the country has managed to get, first of all on relations with the neighbouring countries and let me clearly mention the historic Prespa agreement between North Macedonia and Greece - thanks to your personal leadership, the determination of the Foreign Ministers, and let me also recognise here the leadership of Prime Minister [of Greece, Alexis] Tsipras - but also the historic agreement with Bulgaria, that managed to solve issues that were there since a long time and put your country in a position of good neighbourly relations with all in the region.
This, first and foremost, opens new perspectives for North Macedonia and sends a very powerful message in the region and beyond. We are aware that this complex process absorbed political energy and we have been proud to accompany you at every single step of the way. We have done it, Commissioner [for the European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes] Hahn and myself, including with our presence at the signature
of the agreement in Prespa. But you have made it.
You have also reminded us that it is possible to achieve historic results in terms of relations with your neighbours and remain focused on the EU integration agenda and the reform agenda in the meantime. Doing the two things at the same time has been quite remarkable and I believe you have managed to show everybody that this is indeed possible.
I am impressed by the reform dynamic that exists in the country. A number of key texts have been adopted, such as the law on the prevention of corruption and conflict of interest, or the law on prevention and protection against discrimination. Others, we have been told, will reach the parliamentary debate stage very soon.
We have also seen awareness in the government, in yourself, that change is not just about adopting new laws. It is first and foremost about the institutional approach that a government takes. The government has demonstrated that it is genuinely concerned about the quality and sustainability of reforms - in particular ahead of parliamentary debates, wide consultations have been taking place with parliamentary political parties which is something we particularly encourage and support, but also with the civil society, with ourselves in the European Union, and with the Venice Commission.
I am convinced that North Macedonia can and will also sustain this work in the coming weeks, months and years. We will on our side continue to give our full support to accompany this process with all our strength and with all our tools.
This will require all political forces in the country to work jointly and constructively on the reform agenda. The inclusive approach remains essential and wide consultations should obviously continue. We also expect the opposition to act constructively and we trust that they will demonstrate a sense of responsibility, a capacity to overcome divergences, so that the country as a whole can meet the citizens' expectations on the European Union integration process.
All the country's parliamentary parties, whether in government or opposition, have a responsibility towards their citizens and, we believe, they need to work within the institutional framework of the country itself. This is a message I passed several times in the past, no matter of who was in the government or the opposition. This is one of the key elements for good and strong cooperation with the European Union institutions: any kind of political divergence is expressed within the proper institutional framework of the country. This entails a responsibility for the government to provide an open and functional institutional framework and it obviously entails a responsibility from the opposition to engage inside the institutions, in a political competition and debate.
Presidential elections will take place very soon. It is an important moment, it is not an obstacle on the way to reforms but it is rather an opportunity for democratic debate about the present and the future of the country. It is important that these elections are well-administered, that political competition happens within the institutional framework that the elections provide. Obviously, we will be looking forward to the monitoring and the final assessment of the ODIHR [Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] observation mission.
We also discussed today at length – as always – the role of the country in the region and in Europe. We expressed our appreciation for the consistent increase in alignment with the European Union Common Foreign and Security Policy alignment. Our defence cooperation is also very good and will continue to be strengthened, as North Macedonia wants to further contribute to the European Union’s peacebuilding work, we will also move forward also on this file.
Dear Prime Minister [Zoran Zaev], dear friends, your government has managed to deal with many priorities at the same time, and some of them very challenging and difficult ones: good relations with your neighbours, rule of law reforms, the NATO accession process, security, interethnic relations, and the preparation for elections. It is impressive how you managed to continue to focus on all these different tracks in parallel with important achievements in all of them.
We will accompany you in keeping up a strong pace so that all this work can bring further results in the coming months. I have confidence that with continued reform progress, North Macedonia and its citizens will move forward on the European Union accession path.
Q. Regarding a possible start of negotiations in June, there are very strong signals from France for the moment that it will be a clear "No". What is your position and what do you plan to do to convince France, if the enlargement is on the agenda in June at the General Affairs Council? Can you confirm whether it will be on the agenda or not, given the short timeframe with the Commission's report? Regarding the special prosecutor, the opposition in North Macedonia insists on changing the head of the special prosecution, Mrs. Katica Janeva, would this be acceptable to the European Union?
I will be very brief on the first part of the question. As Commissioner Hahn has said, our joint objective is to have a green light in June to start the negotiations. This is a merit-based process: the Commission will issue a report later in spring and on the basis of the Commission's opinion and report we will work with the Council. This is what I say as the Vice-President of the Commission, in my capacity as High Representative I can tell you that I would never mention one Member State rather than another. It is a decision that the Council needs to take.
Work so far, as Commissioner Hahn mentioned, has gone well with the Council. Our Member States have seen progress after the indications that the Council put forward last year in June. Also, the Council welcomed already the Prespa Agreement: if I remember correctly the Council met one week after the signature that took place the 17 of June
– a date that I remember well because it was the day after my birthday; it was my birthday present.
The Council back then already welcomed the Agreement
, and even more so I would expect the Council to welcome this major step forward that was done by North Macedonia together with Greece. Most importantly I think the Council will have good material on which to take a positive decision when it comes to the implementation of the reform agenda. Obviously the government and the opposition can do its part and still have some months to engage positively on delivering more on the reform agenda and - as Commissioner Hahn also mentioned, on full participation to the democratic institutional processes that are coming up in the next months. I am sure it will also be looked at by our Member States as a sign of stability and normalcy of the democracy in the country.
Here again I would like to fully subscribe to what Commissioner Hahn has mentioned: an appeal to all to use the democratic means that are there in the country from an institutional perspective and make sure that there is a full contribution by all on the reform agenda that has been clearly set up last June and before, long before, for the European Union integration of the country and obviously for the regular holding of the presidential elections.
Q. Could you give us a percentage on the merit-based approach: how close are we to the actual, factual completion of the criteria, such as the rule of law and the independence of the justice system right now, on 19 March? 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent? Why would the government pay the price of the actions of an irresponsible opposition if they choose not to participate, not to collaborate in a European manner in the upcoming presidential elections?
I remember very well I delivered a message on this - I think it was during my visit to Skopje, in the Parliament
. There are issues that are subject to the fiercest exchanges and confrontation among political forces. And then there are some other issues on which the decision and the steps forward are not linked to a political judgment for one political party or the other, but which are the stated national objective of a country and its citizens since a long time ago, much longer than this government was in place, and that constitute as long as we understand the common objective of the people and of all political parties in North Macedonia.
And on that there will not be - and I am sure about that - any kind of political assessments to be given to the government or the opposition or a political party or another. It will simply be a decision for the country. And that will be the moment when different political parties and different institutions, including the opposition, which is part of the democratic institutional life, will be called to do its part to achieve a national objective that is part of the game. As I said the last time I visited Skopje in the Parliament, achieving the opening of the negotiations will be - hopefully we will get there - a result for the entire country, not for the government or for the opposition, for one political party or the other, but for all the citizens of the country. And everybody should be in a condition and in a situation to contribute to it and to take its fair part of merit and responsibility in the moment when the country will get there.
Q. The EU is facing heavy criticism right now from the civil society, academia, media and the opposition in several countries of the Western Balkans for tolerating rule of law and democracy backsliding for the sake of keeping stability in the region. There are several protests from the opposition and citizens in Albania, Serbia and Montenegro against the corrupt governments, which are also violating fundamental rights. Are you concerned about that?
We are normally accused of being too strict on rule of law, anti-corruption, human rights and the space for civil society. And if you look around - not only in the Western Balkans, but in our broader region and in the world - I wonder if there is anybody else in the world that does as much as the European Union does to protect and promote the rule of law, human rights and space for civil society, including human rights activists.
So no, I am not concerned about this. It is the European Union that is ensuring and guaranteeing that there is a special focus on anti-corruption, rule of law and a proper space for civil society in all countries in the world and in particular in our region. We have definitely nothing to be accused of in this field, on the contrary, most frequently Commissioner [Johannes Hahn] and I are accused - in the name of the European Union - of being too strict on these principles and values and, by the way, of being the only one left in the world being so strict on these values and principles. We do it not just because we believe in these values and principles, but also because we know that the only way to make society and institutions stable is to invest in the full participation of civil society and in full appliance of the rule of law principles and rules. I think we have quite some credibility and consistency on this file.
Q. We saw over the last few weeks many delegations in Belgrade and Pristina talking about the continuation of the Dialogue. As you are facilitating this Dialogue, can you tell us whether it is enough to speak only with Belgrade and Pristina regarding the continuation of the Dialogue or do you need to speak with the international community? And what do you expect from them?
I would rather stick to the rule that today we talk about North Macedonia that deserves to be treated as one and not only as part of the region. It is a very important player in the region. I would say that it is a source of inspiration for the region. I believe that in particular the Prespa Agreement with Greece and also the agreement with Bulgaria should show the way to other leaders in the region, in particular on the fact that - we discussed this with the Prime Minister, with his delegation, with the Foreign Minister - if you are a political leader in a complicated country in a complicated region you can choose to aim high and try to achieve the best for your people and your country or you can simply decide that you navigate through difficult times and you wait for better times to come, knowing that the situation could continue like this forever. They chose the courageous, visionary leadership role that delivered something historic. And I believe this should be an inspiration for all.
The international community follows very closely, first of all, the results of the good relations with neighbours that North Macedonia has established and also the developments in the country. I was debriefing the UN Security Council last week
on UN-EU cooperation and I mentioned the Prespa Agreement on that occasion, as I mentioned the work that we do to facilitate the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. I can tell you that in the international community and the in the [UN] Security Council there is a full appreciation for the work that has been done by North Macedonia and Greece and full expectation that this can be a source of inspiration for the rest of the region.