On Thursday, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will be in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, for discussions with representatives of the government and opposition parties. The focus will be on the ongoing talks concerning EU accession for the Balkan country.
Before her departure for North Macedonia, Foreign Minister Baerbock said (on 22 March 2023):
North Macedonia’s place, like that of our other partners in the Western Balkans, is in the European Union. There surely cannot be any more doubt that we are serious about this, certainly not since the official start of accession negotiations with the EU in July 2022. The high hopes and expectations that people in North Macedonia have of the accession process are for us both an opportunity and a risk: a risk, because the people of North Macedonia could be lost to Europe if we as the EU fail to meet their expectations despite all the progress and in some cases painful concessions they have made over the past 17 years. And an opportunity, because everyone involved in the EU enlargement process is aware of what is actually at stake: a future in the European family, a region with stable prosperity and peace, self-determination.
I can well understand that there is currently passionate debate in North Macedonia around issues regarding the country’s own identity, its own history, language and culture. It is no different here, and of course it is particularly to be expected when it comes to fundamental issues such as amendments to the constitution. However, experience shows that in such situations it is worth setting aside party-political calculations, being guided by the clear objective, and fighting resolutely for it. Broad backing for the amendment to the constitution from the parliament of North Macedonia would send a signal not only within the country itself but also into the wider region as a whole: We absolutely want to accede to the EU and for that are doing everything necessary on our part.
The six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – are geographically at the heart of Europe. They have received a clear commitment from the EU that they will one day become members. For this to happen, there are criteria – depending on the state of affairs in each country – concerning important reforms in areas such as the judiciary and the fight against corruption.
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shocked all of Europe. The Western Balkans’ path towards the EU has since gained even greater significance. It remains the German Government’s clear goal, via the EU accession process, to bolster democracy, stability and the rule of law in the Western Balkans and to secure peace. North Macedonia borders two EU member states, Bulgaria and Greece. Since applying for membership in 2004, North Macedonia has initiated and implemented numerous reforms. The country has already cleared many hurdles on its path towards the EU. With the 2018 Prespa Agreement, it even changed its official name to North Macedonia, ending a decades-long dispute with Greece. This agreement paved the way for the opening of accession negotiations.
A further important breakthrough on the path towards the EU followed in July 2022, when the Council of the EU gave the green light for accession negotiations to begin. However, although talks with the EU are already underway, recognition for the country’s Bulgarian minority must be enshrined in North Macedonia’s constitution before negotiations on the first thematic clusters can be opened. This issue will be one focus of the Foreign Minister’s talks in Skopje.
Support for Georgia and its pro-European population
In Georgia, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s itinerary will include talks with representatives of the government and of President Zourabichvili. Georgia has taken a clear stance opposing the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. The majority of its population have their eyes on the European Union; surveys show that a good 80 percent of Georgians want their country to gain EU membership.
Before her departure for Georgia, Foreign Minister Baerbock said (on 22 March 2023):
The people of Georgia, too, have the EU as a firm goal in their sights. In recent weeks they waved the European flag on the streets of Tbilisi as they demonstrated for the defence of pluralism and the rule of law. During my trip, I want to make it clear that Germany is fully committed to Georgia’s prospect of EU membership. We see the attempts to divert the country from the pro-European course that the overwhelming majority of Georgians want. And we see the pressure being exerted on the country from within and without. I will be talking to the Government in Tbilisi about the steps the country still needs to take in order to acquire candidate status. In addition to compliance with democratic standards, these include, in particular, freedom of the media, the preservation of a vibrant civil society, and respectful public debate – even if standpoints sometimes differ greatly. These values unite us in the European Union, and we strongly believe that there can be no short cuts and no concessions here.
The European Council approved the prospect of accession for Georgia in June 2022 – partly in light of the Russian war of aggression against neighbouring Ukraine. The European Commission has identified twelve reform priorities to prepare Georgia for the next steps towards the EU.
Over the past few weeks, the country repeatedly made headlines in German and international media. Thousands of Georgians had protested against the government’s plans to introduce a law regulating the financing of non-governmental organisations from abroad. After days of protests, the government withdrew the bill. Young people were a driving force behind these protests against the “foreign agents law”.
In the capital Tbilisi, Foreign Minister Baerbock will also talk to students at Ilia State University. How do young Georgians see the future of the country in the South Caucasus, with its direct proximity to Russia?
Georgians share a turbulent history with their neighbour – until 1991 they were part of the Soviet Union. Today, relations between Russia and Georgia are strained, among other things because Russia has exercised de facto control over the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which belong to Georgia under international law, since a military conflict in 2008.
Foreign Minister Baerbock will visit the Administrative Boundary Line with South Ossetia to see the situation on the ground for herself. An EU mission monitors developments along the line. This is an important and visible contribution by the EU for stability in Georgia; meanwhile, Germany is the country that provides the most personnel for the mission.