The European Commission has for a fourth time recommended the Council to approve the beginning of accession negotiations with Macedonia, but this time the novelty is that the Commission is ready to put on the table an appropriate negotiating framework that can take into account the need of finding a solution to the name issue between Macedonia and Greece in the earliest possible stage of the negotiations. This is what EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said at the presentation of the annual progress reports of the candidate countries, the potential candidates and Croatia, which will officially become the 28th member state on the 1st of July 2013 if the process of ratification ends by then. Mr Fule did not elaborate on the negotiating framework but pointed out that a possible decision of the European Council for opening accession talks will create conditions for finding a solution to the name dispute.
The beginning of negotiations will also keep the pace of reforms, will reduce the risk of a reverse of the process and would enhance the inter-ethnic relations. These are extremely important issues which obviously the introduced earlier this year High Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD) cannot solve if there is no clear horizon for the beginning of negotiations, blocked by Greece since 2005 when the former Yugoslav republic received a candidate status. In general, the assessment in the course of the negotiations in the framework of HLAD is good as progress is reported in many of the points on the agenda of the initiative. One of the positive results is that the process of accession has been put in the centre of the political agenda of the ruling coalition in Skopje.
Macedonia suffers from the same problems as all the countries in the region in the area of the more popular as chapters 23 and 24 judiciary and home affairs. There the report notes progress but there is a lot of criticism as well. For example, it is pointed out that efforts are needed to ensure the independence and impartiality in practise - that is an important point, given the experience with Bulgaria and Romania which shows that often reforms are demonstrated on paper only. Efforts are needed also for the creation of transparent and clear foundations for appointment of judges and prosecutors on a merit basis. Therefore, it is recommended the Judges Academy to be supported additionally in its important role of providing professional training of personnel for the judiciary.
Regarding another painful for the region issue, which according to the refreshed enlargement strategy is in the centre of the process - corruption, organised crime and rule of law in general - in Macedonia the legislative framework is in place to fight corruption but efforts are needed to implement the existing laws. There are still no results in the persecution of high level corruption. Progress, however, is seen in persecution of organised crime, where over 100 international warrants are quoted, together with the good cooperation of the country with Interpol and Europol.
The former Yugoslav republic has serious problems with media, which are one of the main points in HLAD. In its report the Commission notes that the round table with journalists has proved an important forum for addressing the key challenges the media are facing. The government has adopted proposals for decriminalisation of defamation through the adoption of a new civil Law on Liability for Insult and Defamation. But the Criminal Code needs to be revised in order to reflect these changes. However, there are still wide spread concerns about the lack of pluralism and self-censorship in the media in Macedonia. More efforts are recommended to handle the well known in Bulgaria challenges - transparency of government advertisement and the labour rights of journalists.
In general the report notes that Macedonia maintains a constructive role in terms of bilateral relations with neighbouring countries or with other countries from the enlargement process, as the main focus is put on Greece. Since recently, however, Bulgaria is raising a voice, calling on Macedonia to understand better what "good neighbourly relations" mean and in this regard the government in Sofia is preparing a strategy for the relations of the Western Balkan countries, including Macedonia, while members of the European Parliament call for special treatment of Bulgaria's western neighbour, perceived as another obstacle on its path to starting accession negotiations.
But Commissioner Fule was unequivocal saying that it is essential the country to maintain good neighbourly relations but it seems this is always in the context of Greece. For now the country remains under monitoring and in the framework of the special dialogue, as it is highly unlikely the European Council to approve the beginning of negotiations not only because of Greece's veto, but also because of the tough agenda the European leaders have in seeking an exit from the eurozone crisis.