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13 Dec 12

Macedonia and the EU Council Conclusions

Gerald Knaus

As EU member states gathered last week to discuss Council Conclusions relating to Macedonia two camps of member states emerged with two versions of these conclusions.

To understand whose arguments prevailed – and how to judge what happened – it is important to go beyond facile conclusions and take a closer look at both proposals.

On the one hand there was a majority of member states who favored very positive language. These states were hoping to encourage a proactive Commission to take the initiative and to prepare the ground to launch EU accession talks with Macedonia already in June 2013. They were  hoping that in the end both Greece and Bulgaria would agree that this was also in their interest … that this was truly an issue where all sides could win.

In this group’s draft of the Council Conclusions a concrete date – June 2013 – is given for the possible opening of accession negotiations. This version states that the Council examines further progress in Macedonia on the basis of a Commission report before June 2013. It asks the Commission to submit “in due time” (i.e. at its own discretion, meaning it could start work on it right away in early 2013) a proposal for a negotiations framework, to be ready by June. It also invites the Commission to begin the “analytical examination of the acquis” (screening) right away.

Here are the key paragraphs of this maximalist proposal, backed by most member states and the Commission last week:

3. The Council largely shares the Commission’s assessment that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met and takes note of its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

5. With a view to the possible opening of accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in June 2013, the Council will examine progress in the implementation of reforms in the context of the High Level Accession Dialogue, on the basis of a report to be presented by the Commission in the first half of 2013. The Commission is invited to submit in due time a proposal for a framework for negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in line with the European Council’s December 2006 conclusions and established practice, which also takes into account good neighbourly relations. Taking into account the new approach to accession negotiations as regards the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security, the Commission is also invited to carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis on these chapters.

Faced with this France, backed by a much smaller number of other EU states, put a counter-proposal on the table late last week. This version assesses progress in Macedonia less positively (the Council no longer “largely” but only “broadly” shares the Commission’s positive assessment).

The minimalist proposal removes any reference to any concrete date. At an unspecified future moment, the European council would once again have to decide and invite the commission to submit a proposal for a negotiations framework.  This would happen only “once all the conditions are met”, which is not explained. The minimalist version states that in order to start screening another Council decision would be needed to task the Commission to do so. For now the commission gets no mandate to do anything until further notice.

Here is the full text of the minimalist version:

3. The Council broadly shares the Commission’s assessment that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met and takes note of its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

5. Before opening accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a decision which will be considered in due time by the European Council, in line with established practice, the Council will continue to examine progress in the implementation of reforms including in the context of the High Level Accession Dialogue. Once all conditions are met, the European Council will invite the Commission to submit a proposal for a framework for negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in line with the European Council’s December 2006 conclusions and established practice, which also takes into account good neighbourly relations. Taking into account the new approach to accession negotiations as regards the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security, the European Council will also invite the Commission to carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis on these chapters.

So what actually happened? In all EU negotiations there is usually a give and take. However, if one takes a look at the final text of the Council Conclusions one sees clearly that the maximalist proposal emerged largely victorious.

In the final text the following was agreed:

- the council “largely” (not “broadely”) shares the Commission’s positive view that Macedonia was ready to open talks (the maximalist version).

- The council tasks the Commission already now to produce a report “in spring 2013” “with a view to a possible decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations”.

-  The council commits that it will assess this report “during the next presidency”, i.e. before July 2013.

-  Provided that the assessment is positive, the Commission will be invited to submit “without delay” (i.e. as quickly as it can) a framework for negotiations.

-  Provided that the assessment is positive the Commission will be invited to start screening two chapters, i.e. before accession talks begin.

-  The Council even “takes note” that the Commission “will conduct all the necessary preparatory work in this respect” … which means that Commission can start preparing both the negotiations framework and screening right away.

Look at the finally agreed text of the conclusions and the answer whose arguments won the day is obvious:

40. The Council largely shares the Commission’s assessment that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met and takes note of its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

42. With a view to a possible decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Council will examine, on the basis of a report to be presented by the Commission in Spring 2013, implementation of reforms in the context of the HLAD, as well as steps taken to promote good neighbourly relations and to reach a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue under the auspices of the UN. In this perspective, the Council will assess the report during the next Presidency.  Provided that the assessment is positive, the Commission will be invited by the European Council to: (1) submit without delay a proposal for a framework for negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in line with the European Council’s December 2006 conclusions and established practice; (2) carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis beginning with the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security. The Council takes note of the intention of the Commission to conduct all the necessary preparatory work in this respect.

The original plan of the Commission and of the member states who supported the maximalist version was to create a new momentum emerging from this Council. In this they succeeded.

-  The Commission can immediately begin to prepare its “spring report” which the Council will assess before July 2013.

-  The Commission can immediately begin to prepare for the analytical screening of two chapters and draft a proposal for negotiations.

-  Once the Council accepts a positive Commission report the Commission will submit the framework for negotiations “without delay”

One basic reality has obviously not changed: Greece will have to agree to the opening of accession talks. Expecting anything else was always unrealistic. The hopes of the friends of opening accession talks were to kick-start a process of finding a solution to the name issue in the first few months of 2013. Both supporters of opening talks soon and minimalists agreed on this paragraph without arguing:

41. As set out in the European Council conclusions of June 2008, maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential. There is a need to bring the longstanding discussions on the name issue to a definitive conclusion without delay. The Council welcomes the momentum that has been generated by recent contacts/exchanges between the two parties, following the Greek proposal for a memorandum of understanding. The Council is, moreover, encouraged by recent contacts with the UN mediator.

The important point is this: if there is a positive European commission report following enough movement on the name issue and on good neighbourly relations all preparations will have been  made to launch accession talks in 2013 without delay.

Clearly the pressure has increased further for a serious effort to find a breakthrough in early 2013. This is pressure on everyone: on the Commission, on interested EU member states, but above all on Skopje and Athens. The fact that Greece accepted these conclusions, however, is another small positive sign.

The European Commission’s hope from the very beginning was to energize the search for a mutually agreed solution to the name issue.  The commission and most member states wanted a date in the conclusions when accession talks would possibly be opened. Now there are two dates in the conclusions: a report by the commission on progress by “spring” (April) with a view to start accession talks; and a Council assessment of this “before the next presidency” (before July).

An additional paragraph was also inserted upon the initiative of Bulgaria:

In light of the overall importance of maintaining good neighbourly relations, the Council also notes the recent high level contacts between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria and looks forward to their translation into concrete actions and results.

This means: if there is an agreed solution on the name issue soon, and if there are ‘concrete actions and results’ from high level meetings with Bulgaria till April, the goal to start accession talks in 2013 “before the next presidency” or very early in it remains alive.

These are one big and one (slightly) smaller if. But a focused effort by the Commission and by member states supportive of opening accession talks soon has prepared a more promising playing field for a breakthrough than there has been in a while.

What is needed now is a serious and imaginative solution to the name dispute before the commission reports “in the spring”; a solution that allows both Athens and Skopje to unlock the current destructive stalemate in a manner that both governments can defend before their domestic constituencies.

The Council was a warm up exercise. Now the real game begins. Athens and Skopje face a prisoners dilemma: if neither side believes that a solution is possible, and acts on this, both will lose. If both sides take a calculated risk to take the search for a mutually acceptable solution seriously both can win.

By spring 2013 we will know the outcome … sooner rather than later.


Gerald Knaus is founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative. This blog was initially published at Rumeli Observer

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