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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Address to the National Council on European Integration of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
National Council on European Integration
Skopje, 9 April 2013
A very good morning to everyone and also to the media who are able to be with us throughout the whole meeting.
It is always a pleasure to be here in Skopje, this time only five weeks since my previous visit. If you wonder whether it is a good sign that I am here already for the third time this year expressing our commitment to your country, you might be right. But if you wonder whether it is not a troubling sign of something not being good, you would also be right.
I am particularly pleased to meet with you as key players in the integration process, ensuring inclusiveness and unity of purpose as regards your country's strategic goal.
Since we last met in this format in September 2012 there have been several developments.
The dynamism injected by HLAD into the reform process was recognised by all 27 Member States of the European Union in December last year when they issued the most forward looking conclusions for the country in several years – holding out the possibility of the opening of accession negotiations.
Since then the crisis arising from the events in and around this building on 24 December has posed serious questions. I have already stated my concern at these events which undermined political dialogue in the country. The agreement reached on 1 March was therefore of utmost importance in allowing for the resumption of normal political life and, already, the participation of all political parties in the local elections which have just finished.
The political agreement stresses the importance of cross party support for the strategic goal of Euro-Atlantic integration. It puts the interests of the country first, before party interests.
What I consider the most important is that the Committee of Inquiry will be established as soon as possible - as agreed - to look into the events of the 24 December and that all parties affirm their strategic commitment to EU integration in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding expressing cross-party commitment to EU integration.
Over the last year, our degree of cooperation has deepened – not least through the three meetings of the High Level Accession Dialogue. As you know, the Commission is your partner in the reform process, not just at a strategic level but through our daily interaction with you.
This is a crucial time for your country. Next week, the Commission will present a special Report which our Member States requested last December, as input to their upcoming discussion – and, we hope, decision – in June. As a sign of the importance of the High Level Accession Dialogue, this is one of the two topics on which the Member States asked us to prepare this special Report.
The High Level Accession Dialogue has proven to be an important catalyst for reforms. It has targeted specific reforms in your five key policy areas, through a process of dialogue and ownership, based on your own roadmap and targets.
I welcome that you have delivered valuable reforms, in line with the objectives and targets of the HLAD, reforms which will benefit your country. In doing so, you have also demonstrated your commitment to accede to the European Union. In the preparation of our Spring Report and for today's HLAD meeting, we have noted that progress has been achieved and measures have been taken in several important areas, despite the fact that parliament was not functioning properly for the first months of this year, due to the events of 24 December.
Let me briefly run through the key HLAD priorities:
As regards the rule of law, there has been progress in improving the efficiency of the court system. The importance of the Judicial Academy in training future judges and prosecutors has been emphasised by recent legislative changes and information campaigns. In the area of corruption-prevention, the introduction of systematic verification led to the more effective identification and resolution of potential conflicts of interest.
On public administration reform, we follow with interest the continued efforts in setting up a new framework for civil and public service and general administrative procedures. Let me reiterate here in particular the importance the Commission attaches to the principles of transparency, the principle of merit and equitable representation that are to be enshrined in the new legislative framework. We also look forward to more being done on decentralisation and regional development.
As regards freedom of expression and the media, the significance of the decriminalisation of defamation last autumn should not be underestimated, and efforts should now focus on ensuring that national courts are able to implement the new legislation in line with European standards.
However, it is a great shame that the new impetus created - and the concrete progress made - through the Media Dialogue between government and journalists over the past year, has been overshadowed by recent events. It is essential that the government resumes dialogue with journalists and that journalists engage in the important reform work which is needed in this field, in an inclusive, transparent and open atmosphere. This issue is extremely important and it should be a duty of everyone, particularly in young democracies, to defend freedom of expression because the level of freedom of expression sometimes becomes the only true mirror of the democracy in a transformation country.
I have taken note of the findings of the international observers on the recently held local elections and look forward to their final report. I welcome that the recent local elections were well-administered, competitive and candidates were able to campaign freely. However there are a number of concerns that ODIHR raised that will have to be addressed such as insufficient separation between state and political parties, including allegations of misuse of state resources during the election campaign, and the role of the media in this context.
One would say, we have heard that assessment before. Yes you did, it is the same as it was after the last parliamentary elections. So one wonders, where has the progress been made between then and now?
All elected officials, including new local mayors must make efforts to build a relationship of trust with all citizens and represent all equally, regardless of their ethnicity
We understand that the first government report on the implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement is about to be published. This is an important step forward as it sets out in a transparent way the results achieved so far and makes recommendations about future work. On this basis a real consensus on the way forward can be built among the public.
On the economic front, we welcome that the government cleared all its outstanding payment obligations. We also welcome the adoption by the government of the Action Plan for Youth Employment. Many challenges in the labour market remain. The comprehensive labour market study that is currently undertaken in co-operation with the World Bank can be used to address those challenges in a more strategic way.
In today's difficult economic climate, we all need to use limited resources as efficiently as possible and ensure strategic and transparent planning of the public finances for the benefit of all citizens.
Which brings me back to Europe's overarching theme, which I find of particular relevance to your country: "together we are stronger". Unity is essential for any group of individuals, for any country or group of countries, to succeed in their strategic goal. The European Union is your strategic objective. The reforms required to achieve this should not be hostage to competition between political parties, who should all work towards, and not undermine, this goal.
Croatia becoming a European Union Member State in a few months' time is the proof that progress can be made. Of course the European Union provided support and encouragement – and persuasion when necessary – along the way, but it was Croatia and Croatians who took the difficult decisions and implemented courageous policies. I know that you too can do the same.
Thank you for your attention.