This was a start mired with confusion, uncertainty, political drama, and countless questions about whether Macedonia actually managed to hop on the European train or the train escaped yet again.
"On behalf of the citizens and the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia, it is an exceptional honor for me to have the opportunity to address, in my native Macedonian language, today's long-awaited and well-deserved intergovernmental conference with which we open the negotiations for full membership of North Macedonia in the European Union. With this intergovernmental conference, North Macedonia begins the final phase of its long road toward full membership in the European Union. Today is a historic day for us. May the beginning of the accession negotiations be happy for us all."
This is a short excerpt from the triumphal speech of Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski on July 19, 2022, in Brussels. A speech that emits disinformation that the negotiations have started.
That day the Brussels stage was set for a great celebration. Smiling faces, shiny tuxedos, curious journalists, and euphoria at hosts and guests. After decades of waiting, North Macedonia and Albania are starting negotiations for EU membership.
With what color should we underline the big news? With red or with green? “False” or “true,” as would our Western friends who have been dancing with the Balkans for years say, sometimes in the rhythm to attract the partner and sometimes to push that partner away. The assurance we received on July 19 was that the partners were finally in a tight embrace until the relationship was finalized.
"I am happy that bilateral issues that are not directly related to EU law and the Copenhagen criteria for membership will not be discussed during the negotiations, as President Von der Leyen unequivocally confirmed in the Parliament of the Republic of North Macedonia in front of all our MPs and our entire public,” Kovachevski said on that occasion.
He actually tried to say that Bulgaria can no longer do anything for us and that, apart from the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which are valid for all countries, no other conditions have been delivered to Macedonia in the negotiations. Which, of course, is not true, and that includes disinformation.
To tell the truth, this attitude was fueled by the very top of the Union, probably with the intention of advancing, in a positive spirit, in Skopje. "What a historic moment!" Today, Albania and North Macedonia are starting negotiations with the European Union, and it is my pleasure to be here with you. This is an important success for you and the success of your citizens." said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, knowingly supporting the false narrative about the negotiations that have begun.
Mr. Kovachevski’s forecast
What the Government left out of the public messages, so as not to disturb the celebratory atmosphere, is that after Bulgaria managed to enter most of its bilateral demands into the negotiation framework in the so-called "French proposal", at an extraordinary session on July 18, the EU Council officially accepted that text of the negotiating framework. The condition, which is included in the official conclusions of the EU Council from July 18, under which Bulgaria gave its consent, is that North Macedonia shall make amendments to its Constitution.
And if the condition is not met, the process may stop.
Quick and assertive as he has proven to be in politics, the Macedonian Prime Minister Kovachevski immediately announced in which year we will enter the European Union. "North Macedonia, with intensive and dedicated work, aims to be fully prepared to take on the obligations of EU membership by the end of 2030 so that it can become an EU member by the beginning of the next EU budget period", he said, thus adding another link in the (dis)information chain.
This was definitely a start that promised confusion, uncertainty, political drama, and countless questions about whether Macedonia got on the European train or the train escaped again because the opposition made it clear that it would not vote for the constitutional amendments. Without the opposition, the Government doesn’t have the necessary 80 votes in Parliament.
The question divided the public into two blocs, each telling and propagating its own truth. The pro-government public is "fed" with the narrative that the negotiations have started and that the opposition wants to minimize the government's success by denying it. The opposition and the experts who are part of its orbit are expanding the cracks in that narrative by telling the public that the negotiations are conditional on a change to the Constitution that cannot be implemented because they will not support such change.
In a recent interview even the Deputy Prime Minister Marichic says that the process of accession to the EU is complex and with many details, and at the same time assesses that this makes the process susceptible to disinformation.
But he pointed to the source of disinformation elsewhere. "And North Macedonia is not the first country that has faced this fight against disinformation in its process of accession to the European Union. In other countries, there was also disinformation, and prejudices and half-information, which related, first of all, to how everyday life will change when the country enters the European Union," says Marichic.
But these qualifications of the Deputy Prime Minister are exactly the formulations that should be addressed to the Government because the main disinformation seems to be coming out of "Ilindenska" (the location of the Government building). The statements that the constitutional amendments will enable the completion of the intergovernmental conference from July 19 or that a new intergovernmental conference will be held to continue the negotiations essentially mean that if the constitutional amendments do not happen, there will be no negotiations. In other words, now there are no negotiations, but there is a preparatory process, a fitness running around the start so that we can enter the marathon prepared.
In the same interview, Mr. Maricic, spreading the thesis that the Government is a victim of disinformation about the negotiation process, categorically throws the ball in the opposition's court. Unfortunately, he says, we are dealing with even more difficult issues, burning issues related to identity and topics related to our Constitution, our legal system, and the way the state works.
"And that is why it is so susceptible to disinformation (the state), that is why it is so hard to fight it. We, as a government, have said, from the beginning, because the question was, 'What’s the date?', 'What’s the start date of the negotiations'? That date is July 19, 2022, and we repeat it on all occasions," says Maricic.
This position, followed by a categorical message that the negotiations have begun, without reserve or reservation, clearly highlights the disinformation with which the Government will build its position until the act of voting on the constitutional changes. But the epilogue can burst the inflated bubble of expectations and promises.
The experts are skeptical
That Macedonia wakes up in a sunny political environment one day when it comes to negotiations with the EU and another day in a dark one is also shown by the demands of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE for an apology from Kovachevski because, as they said, he lied that the negotiations had started. "Kovachevski lied that the negotiations had started, but in fact, he stalled the negotiations and allowed Macedonia to be blocked,” was the accusation by this political party.
Former Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Nikola Dimitrov is also skeptical. "We must be honest with the Macedonian citizens. There is currently no train to the EU. Currently, even the rails are moved. There is no offer, there is no time frame, and in that sense the reward is pale. Constitutional amendments are not the only problem. We know that the next turn of thorns and obstacles will be the Historical Commission. And Sofia's expectations to see results that will benefit them", said Dimitrov recently when appearing on Sitel Television, and said that "The Government made bricks without straw" and that it misled the friends of the country.
In fact, there is no need to look further for statements that will confirm the finding that there is a deep disagreement about whether Macedonia is currently negotiating with the Union or not. If there were negotiations now, the topic would be the reforms in the country in order to be able to catch up with European standards, and not the question of whether the negotiations have really started and whether the constitutional amendments, which are a condition for their continuation, will succeed.
As it was analyzed for Res Publica by Mrs. Malinka Ristevska Jordanova, a veteran in the observation of the Macedonia's accession process to the EU, the Government's attitude towards the negotiations is a "salami" tactic. "The salami (a political package that is hard to swallow all at once) is cut into thin slices in order to divide and break the resistance," she says, alluding to the constitutional amendments.
The gap between the Government, the opposition, and the expert community regarding this issue is so deep that it brings uncertainty and resistance in the public to the constitutional amendments.
The recently published analysis of public opinion carried out by the Institute for Democracy and "Konrad Adenauer" showed that two-thirds of the total number of respondents (65%) do not agree with the constitutional amendments, with as many as 80% of them being ethnic Macedonians.
The fog from the champagne
As the political statements move from one extreme to the other, that is, the Government claims that the negotiations have started and the opposition that they have not, Dragan Tilev, State Councilor for European Affairs, partially clarified things. "Have the accession negotiations started?" Yes, from a formal legal point of view, the accession negotiations between the European Union and the Republic of North Macedonia officially started on July 19, 2022, he wrote in a text. "However, they will really start only after the constitutional amendments are implemented,” adds Mr. Tilev.
To put it more simply, what seemed hazy because of the bubbly champagne on July 19 took on clearer contours in the months that followed. Either Macedonia will include the Bulgarians in the Constitution or in those same glasses in which the champagne was sparkling, Macedonia may be served a corrosive liquid in November instead of water on the way to the Union, which may cause a coma in the negotiation process.
In the meantime, the relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria do not reflect a positive course of events, as would follow after such big news that the misunderstandings have been resolved and the veto has been removed. On the contrary – we are witnessing an escalation, that is, frequent provocations from the Bulgarian side and counter-reactions from our side. It was first the arson at the Bulgarian cultural center in Bitola "Ivan Mihailov", followed by the brawl fight in which Hristijan Pendikov was injured and now the deletion of the Bulgarian cultural center "Ivan Mihailov" from the Central Register. There is no doubt that these developments are caused by the negotiation framework and the growing tension that Sofia will again stand in the way of the Macedonia's path to the European Union.
At one point, after the Pendikov case and a banal rejection of a Bulgarian theater performance, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev came out with an open threat: "If they continue to block anything Bulgarian, the Macedonians themselves will be blocked from joining the EU." And that should be categorically clear to them," he said.
It is precisely such statements that fuel doubts as to whether negotiations with the EU have begun at full capacity, and whether they will continue to take place without interference by Bulgaria. This threatening rhetoric of Sofia is traveling at the speed of light towards Skopje and spreading additional pessimism and uncertainty.
The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Albania (Exit), within the project "Use of facts-based journalism to raise awareness of and counteract disinformation in the North Macedonia media space (Use Facts)" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.
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