It really is true: when you’re standing up here, it does all look rather odd to someone who is well acquainted with this room and events like this one, usually packed with people. And yet, for me that is probably not such a bad thing today: this is my first engagement after 14 days of quarantine. That means I am coming face to face with other people again for the first time in 14 days. For my reintegration into society, it is perhaps not so bad that there are not too many of you at once. Incidentally, my dear Zoran, one of the last people I saw before being sent into quarantine was your Foreign Minister Bujar. And now, one of my very first encounters since emerging from isolation is with you, our friends from North Macedonia, and that is a happy coincidence.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Imagine the scene. It is nothing short of a nightmare scenario in a democracy: supporters of the government that has just lost the election storm the parliament. Masked assailants are seen attacking MPs with chairs. Journalists observing the events are assaulted. The scene is one of utter chaos.
It is the culmination of months of deadlocked efforts to form a new government amid unprecedented political polarisation. For some of you, this may call to mind another country right now.
But for Zoran Zaev, ladies and gentlemen, it is no fiction. It is precisely how his time in office began. Supporters of the previous government responded to the election outcome with violence. The outgoing prime minister dismissed it as a coup.
The new elections, from which you emerged victorious, dear Zoran, were the result of the protests known as the “colourful revolution”.
You played a key role in these protests. You became a beacon of hope for an entire generation that had had enough of nationalism and a political establishment more interested in the past than the future.
And so you became a leading proponent of the dual vision comprising national unity on one hand, and a closer relationship with Europe on the other. Your achievements in the pursuit of this vision are remarkable. You strengthened the rule of law; you fought for an independent judiciary and against corruption. You instilled dignity in your country’s democracy. This was the first step on the road to Europe.
As we all well know, this road is not, nor ever was, a walk in the park. Domestically, you have met with stiff opposition, especially with regard to the oft‑mentioned, but in your country just as controversial Prespa Agreement.
For 27 years, the naming dispute between Greece and North Macedonia dragged on, hindering your country’s Euro‑Atlantic integration. Diplomats from both countries, as well as the United Nations, the European Union and NATO spent years in search of a solution. On more than one occasion, the two countries’ foreign ministers at the time – my colleagues Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov – negotiated through the night. And we were always following events very closely, as what happens in your country and the European prospects of the Western Balkans have always been a priority for the Federal Government. This is as true today as ever.
When you shook hands beside Lake Prespa on 17 June 2018, you showed the world at large that together with Alexis Tsipras, you had succeeded in embarking on a path of compromise, peace, and above all mutual respect – in short, a truly European path.
Since 2019, your country has had a new name. This was a process in which you faced considerable headwind on the domestic front. Things became especially turbulent when the process of EU accession did not proceed as swiftly as hoped, and the long road to Europe seemed to grow ever longer. You endured setbacks, but you never let them deter you.
Your political vision was vindicated by the new elections held in your country.
We saw the first fruits of this political courage in March this year, when North Macedonia was accepted as the 30th member of NATO. Finally! This was a huge step for your country, but also a huge step for the security of the entire Western Balkan region. Since then, the first soldiers from North Macedonia have joined NATO missions in Kosovo, for instance, to help bring about stability in the country and thereby in the region at large. We all know just how difficult the situation between Kosovo and Serbia remains, and this is a great responsibility that your country has shouldered.
Also in March, the Council of the European Union finally gave the green light for accession negotiations to begin.
Alongside the Prespa Agreement, an important foundation for this step – which we too had long awaited – was the friendship treaty with Bulgaria, signed in 2017.
The decision by Bulgaria and North Macedonia, as neighbours, to share the presidency of the Berlin Process this year was another encouraging sign.
Last week, at the summit that you jointly hosted, you achieved important results including the creation of a common regional market – a project of vast importance to the Western Balkan region and its aspirations to join the EU. This is especially important as, for the citizens of this region, the prospect of EU membership is not some abstract notion, but something very concrete. They want to see it materialise in their own lives – and for that to happen, we need concrete progress: economic progress, social progress, job creation. I believe that the goal of a common regional market is precisely what can satisfy the expectations of your compatriots back home.
We all know that intensive discussions are under way to ensure that the first accession conference takes place before the end of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In the coming days, we will continue to work on this issue just as hard as we have in recent weeks. After all, it is our stated goal and a central element of our presidency programme that the decisions in March, which we had waited so long for, are finally followed by the start of formal negotiations. Accordingly, our aim remains to hold the first accession conference with North Macedonia by the end of this year.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This is an issue in which the credibility of the EU is also at stake. For this reason, it is utterly crucial that over the coming days we find solutions for those questions that still remain unanswered. We really mean it, and we want to help in very concrete terms to achieve this goal. We really mean it when we say that the Western Balkans belong in the EU. We have negotiated on so many issues for so long; we want to finally move forward. And we will continue to do everything in our power to support you on this path.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear Zoran,
One of the reforms that you accomplished in your country was the anti‑discrimination law, which was adopted in late October with cross‑party support. I believe that this anti‑discrimination law is perfectly aligned with a promise you made when you stood in the parliamentary election:
“To create a society for all, a Republic of North Macedonia in which everyone feels at home and respected – regardless of ethnicity, sexual or religious orientation.”
Dear Zoran, it would be hard to find words that better encapsulate Europe and its values.
And this is precisely the opposite of what nationalists in so many countries keep on trying to tell us: a person can be a Macedonian or an Albanian and at the same time a proud citizen of Skopje, North Macedonia, and indeed Europe.
The wonderful thing about our European identity is that it unites us in all our rich diversity.
Thanks to your commitment and perseverance, as well as your tireless and infectious optimism, the Prespa Agreement was a crucial step forward – for the good of your country, but also of the region and therefore for the good of Europe.
You became a beacon of hope, setting an example that the countless unresolved conflicts around the world would do well to follow.
This is why you are receiving the Friedrich‑Ebert‑Stiftung Human Rights Award today.
It is a very great and special honour to present it to you – an ambitious reformer, a far‑sighted politician, and above all: a committed European.
My heartfelt congratulations!