Interview with the Executive Director of FOSM for NovaTV
The French Proposal, its essence and whether it was properly communicated in the public, its potential to fully polarize the society and push it into a new spiral of aggression and violence, whether the European friends could have formulated a much better negotiating framework with the EU that would put aside bilateral issues with Bulgaria, what would the start of accession negotiations mean and is there an alternative, and the role of the Foundation Open Society – Macedonia are the topics covered in this interview with FOSM’s executive director, Fani Karanfilova-Panovska.
NovaTV: Recently, the Foundation Open Society – Macedonia issued a press release concerning violent protests against the French Proposal, but you have not publicly shared your position on the proposal itself as negotiating framework with the EU. Could you tell NovaTV’s readers your views about this proposal and whether it threatens the national identity, language, history and culture?
The decision that we need to make in respect to the offered package for start of accession negotiations is very serious, multidimensional and difficult. Information about the possibility to unblock the accession process came about suddenly, if not unexpectedly, primarily due to lack of information that a shift in distribution of power and change of opinion within the EU Presidency and all EU member-states, including Bulgaria, is even possible. Fact is that we were informed and somewhat briefed about intensive diplomacy efforts on the part of the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and on the part of the highest official representatives from our partners and allies in the international community, but signals that their efforts could yield any results were not promising. It was also clear that intensive discussions and negotiations had taken place in the weeks before and during the June NATO Summit in Madrid, but there was barely any information about the content of such talks and the critical points of contention. We were unable to see the initial French Proposal, rejected by PM Kovachevski in Brussels, which – from today’s perspective – I believe was another mistake in the government’s strategic communications, especially because it is a matter of a very sensitive issue that requires minimum societal consensus before being promoted in the public and before being opened for argument-based debate that could result in a decision that will be broadly accepted by all actors and stakeholders. In that spirit, I appeal to the Government to publish the Protocol, i.e. the minutes from the second meeting held by the Macedonian-Bulgarian intergovernmental commission immediately after their approval by both sides, which should happen before the start of the debate in the Macedonian Parliament, in order to avoid a situation in which failure to publish the protocol’s content becomes the main topic for exchange of accusations and slandering statements among MPs, and in the public discourse.
The recent French Proposal, which is actually a proposal for the negotiating framework, comes in the form of position agreed by all 27 EU member-states and determines the Macedonian language without any additional reference, designation or footnote (the unilateral language declaration is not part of the negotiating framework), and in that respect, we should not and must not engage in relativization and manipulation. That was the “big compromise” agreed to by the Republic of Bulgaria and, for better or for worse, the fact remains that the Bulgarian state has made a compromise on this issue of highest national identity for us, irrespectively of the absurdity that making compromises for recognition of somebody’s independence and self-identification in the 21st century is utterly incomprehensible, unjustifiable, degrading and, most importantly, contradictory to all international convention and standards on respect for human and fundamental rights. Fact is that, under the last proposal for the negotiating framework, the Macedonian language is recognized and accepted as official language for translation of the EU acquis during the accession negotiations process and that the Macedonian language is accepted as future official language of the European Union at the moment when our country becomes a full-fledged member. Another and, in my opinion, more important benefit from the start of negotiations is the start of the screening process after the first intergovernmental conference is organized, which means that, in addition to the explanatory screening, i.e. its update, the European Commission will also start the bilateral screening process whereby all institutions and reforms will be put “back on the tracks”, and all of us will have to roll the sleeves, take responsibility and start serious work on delivering results that would actually improve democratic, institutional, economic and overall performance of the state. The start of negotiations is a challenge that will force us, i.e. will put us in a situation of having to “measure” and demonstrate our abilities as a state and society.
I would like to also reflect on the theses that the negotiating framework internalizes bilateral issues with the neighbours. From 2009, bilateral issues are part of the so-called political criterion for EU membership and consequently they are part and parcel of the accession negotiations, irrespective of the fact whether they are referenced in the negotiating framework or not. We cannot count on being able to negotiate our membership in the EU, but not honour and implement the agreements signed with our neighbours, especially those with EU member-states, which in this case include the Prespa Agreement with the Republic of Greece and the Agreement on Good Neighbourly Relations with the Republic of Bulgaria. Both agreements, i.e. attainment of tangible results from their enforcement, are part of the negotiating framework, which is understandable. However, what in some way represents a precedent is that article 5 of the negotiating framework copies the content of article 12 from the bilateral agreement with Bulgaria, which concerns effective implementation of anticipated measures in annual reviews/reports on operation of the mixed intergovernmental bodies. This means that, “discussions” for assessment of the dynamics, milestones and progress in implementation of the bilateral agreement with Bulgaria will include the EU as the third party on the table. Although this represents some form of precedent and complicates the process, ultimately it could be useful for the Macedonian side in the given situation.
I disagree with opinions that the negotiating framework, with all its shortcomings and precedents in respect to several positions (two-step process for opening accession negotiations, which means organization of two intergovernmental conferences, changes to the Constitution at the very start of negotiations, internalization of bilateral issues in the negotiating framework) is an introduction to Bulgarian appropriation of the state and threatens the Macedonian identity. The negotiating framework does not do that, i.e. it does not prejudicate the capacity and integrity of institutions and bodies that will implement provisions from the negotiating framework, provided that this document is accepted, and does not prejudicate the capacity and autonomy of bodies formed and those that are yet to be formed for implementation of the bilateral agreement with Bulgaria and are of key importance for overcoming possible obstacles and challenges in the process, without threatening our identity and culture. If matters take a wrong turn or our national interests cannot be protected during this process, there is always the option to forgo the accession negotiations and EU membership.
NovaTV: In the light of public statements by political actors, is it possible for the French Proposal, in its current form and content, to be passed by the legislature or not? This question is raised in mainly along the lines of this effort being perceived as test for adoption of changes to the Constitution which, as we all know, are passed with two-third majority vote?
I expect and I wish to see argument-based and constructive debate of opposing opinions in the legislature, mainly about the content, political and technical aspects of the proposal, and argument-based debate about what we stand to gain if the negotiating framework is accepted. i.e. what we stand to lose if the negotiating framework is rejected, and I most certainly expect sustained arguments about what are the challenges and how they could be addressed for each of the two options. More important is the course and quality of the debate in the Parliament, which should bring to light all arguments “for” and “against” the proposal, and should outline the vision about the state’s future under the two possible outcomes of this vote. If that happens, I am convinced that, by the end of the debate, vast majority of MPs will take a decision which they have assessed as offering better opportunities for progress and development. What we must not allow to happen is uncivilized atmosphere, hate speech and labelling that could easily transform from verbal to physical violence both in the legislature and/or on the streets. I appeal to the system institutions to take all necessary measures to prevent escalation of events in the next days, in the Parliament and on the streets.
As for securing the two-third majority vote, I believe that additional efforts in that regard will be taken at a later stage, after the possible acceptance of the proposal for start of accession negotiations. Evident is that changes to the Constitution require votes from opposition MPs who, at this moment, are proponents of disagreement with the proposal and who do not accept changes to the Constitution (here, I primarily refer to opposition parties from the Macedonian political block), which indicates to the need for continued open, intensive and constructive communication and dialogue between the government and the opposition, in hope of possible alignment of views. At this moment, when we are faced with adoption of a serious decision about which road to take while standing at the crossroad, the bare minimum which citizens expect from all political actors is sound mind, argument-based debate, answers to questions, calmed tone and dignified conduct.
NovaTV: Do you think that the European friends from Brussels could have drafted a better proposal for our negotiating framework, having in mind the public’s sensibility, but also the Bulgarian demands, some of which do no correspond to the truth and are beyond any sound reason, which makes them irritating?
Content of the negotiating framework is far from perfect, and no text representing a compromise can be a desired option which, unfortunately, is the reality here. This text is a reflection of the existing asymmetry (we are not EU member-state, Bulgaria is) which, disliked as it may be, is a fact that we cannot alter. If we had the opportunity to write this document together with EU member-states that are our supporters, without Bulgaria, it is certain that the text would have been much better, and vice versa. If Bulgaria had the opportunity to write this document without other member-states, its content would have been much worse.
NovaTV: Do you expect escalation of the situation around the French Proposal which has recently fully polarized the already divided society? I ask this question in the context that, after many decades of work by the Foundation Open Society – Macedonia, do you feel any resentment that the Macedonian society is not fully democratized, that hate speech still exists, that what used to be a point of common agreement between the government and the opposition, for example, topics related to the EU and NATO, has now become a new area of divisions and hatred?
The polarization and new divisions in the society that we are witnessing these days affect us all; they tear apart the already fragile tissue of the society and dig into recent wounds from previous compromises that are still not fully healed. Emotional reactions and fear are understandable and are not unfounded, unfortunately they are not helpful in a situation when what we need the most is sound reason, rationality and wisdom to demonstrate, as we have done many times before, that we – as a mature society – are capable of bringing out the best from difficult and complicated moments and can make the right decision for the future of the state. Inciting and demonstrating any form of violence, hate speech and nationalist narratives and actions that threaten our multiethnic society and cohabitation are not an option. These should be condemned and require efficient response and measures by institutions to prevent and sanction any such behaviour.
Having in mind the experiences from the course of street protests and the dominant discourse in the public and on the social media, I expect the situation might escalate in undesired direction, but I hope that we will not let that happen. We do not need new Black Mondays and Bloody Thursdays.
NovaTV: What is now in the Foundation’s focus of work in the country? Do you expect new assistance and in which areas?
The Foundation continues to work on supporting the civil society and institutions in respect to advancing good governance, legal state, respect for human rights, especially the rights of minority and marginalized communities, social justice and economic development, and in that sense, we support the country’s integration in the European Union, regional economic cooperation in the Western Balkan, green transition and digital transformation.
—————————————————14 July 2022