© Andrzej Rostek/Shutterstock

© Andrzej Rostek/Shutterstock

Reforms, integrity of the judicial system, corruption: the latest report from the European Commission on North Macedonia's progress towards future EU membership is probably the worst in recent years. For Brussels, Skopje must move beyond words and onto actions

13/12/2023 -  Angelina Cvetkovska

Every year, the European Commission publishes reports on the progress of candidate states towards meeting the EU accession criteria. North Macedonia, an EU candidate state since 2005, has in recent years been making significant progress towards membership in the EU. Since 2017, it has undertaken domestic reforms and improved relations with neighbouring countries, particularly Greece, with which it had a decennial dispute over the country’s name. The 2023 EC Progress Report has, however, raised concerns over the progress of North Macedonia. Arguably, this is the most negative report in recent years. EU Commission representative in North Macedonia David Geer affirmed that the report is “frank” and “fair” , and seeks to encourage the institutions to engage more actively in advancing reforms necessary for EU accession. The report essentially asks the institutions to move beyond words and onto actions, beyond declarative support for EU accession and onto substantive improvement of domestic institutions, the rule of law and the fight against corruption.

The complications in the progress of North Macedonia are numerous. The domestic public debate has been polarised, weakening democratic institutions overall. Corruption, a main concern for North Macedonia’s progress, has been facilitated by a recent reduction of the maximum legal penalties for corruption-related crimes.

North Macedonia has positioned itself well in terms of its foreign policy, aligning with EU positions on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and taking an active role as a chair of the OSCE in the current complex geopolitical environment. On foreign policy, the assessments of the progress report are positive.

The concerns raised relate mainly to the country’s internal reform. The 2023 Progress Report notes limited or no progress in public administration reform, judiciary integrity and independence, the fight against corruption, and freedom of expression. In 2021 and 2022, in these same areas, the reported progress was evaluated more positively than in the 2023 report.

The most worrying aspects of the report relate to the judiciary, with a negative assessment of the country’s independence and integrity of the judges and institutions, and concerns over political influence. The fight against corruption has also been stalling, with high-level corruption cases being delayed or reversed. Furthermore, the reduction of penalties for corruption-related criminal offences is seen as particularly concerning, as it hampers future accountability for corruption.

The stalled progress is largely due to a polarised political landscape. The deep disagreements between the ruling and opposition parties have blocked the work of the parliament, and have delayed the appointments of members to important institutional bodies such as the Constitutional Court or the Commission for Protection and Prevention against Discrimination. Therefore, the polarised environment has led to delays in the approval of necessary legislative reforms and weakened other institutions essential to the democratic functioning of the country. Furthermore, the EU has called for a comprehensive review of the electoral legislation, but no progress has been made on this point.

On the topic of civil society, the report notes that, while civil society organisations are able to conduct their activities without significant obstacles, there is a need for their further engagement, such as through consultation activities by the government. Civil society organisations are fundamental in keeping the institutions accountable and promoting human rights, gender equality, LGBTIQ rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, but their position and role need to be strengthened through improved budget allocations, mutual trust and cooperation. Specifically on gender equality, some progress was made concerning legislation on gender-based violence, however increased access to services is needed to ensure full compliance with the Istanbul Convention. Furthermore, the growing "anti-gender" movement, sometimes supported by government officials, religious and political leaders has blocked the adoption of the Law on Gender Equality.

Although challenges persist, some progress was made in the areas of fighting organised crime, terrorism and violent extremism and managing mixed migration flows. Some progress has also been made on the economic criteria. There is a good level of preparation in terms of the functioning of the market economy and moderate preparation in the capacity of the economy to deal with competitive pressure and market forces in the EU. However, potential economic growth is stifled by gaps in developing infrastructure, scarce investment and funding of innovation, unemployment and a large informal economy.

Domestically, the most discussed topic related to EU integration is constitutional change, which became conditional for North Macedonia’s progress towards EU integration after the veto imposed by Bulgaria in 2020. The dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia has a long history and is complex. The 2023 Commission Progress Report does not focus extensively on the proposed constitutional changes and mentions them three times in a 128-page document. The proposed changes to the preamble and two constitutional provisions stipulate the inclusion of additional minorities living within the borders of the country, which are currently not mentioned in the Constitution, notably the Bulgarian people.

Two-thirds of the population disagree with the proposed changes , in light of the Bulgarian denial of the existence of the Macedonian language and national identity. Therefore, the issue is particularly controversial for the public. So far the constitutional amendments have not been passed and it seems unlikely that this will occur before the coming parliamentary elections in 2024. While EU Officials have emphasised the importance of passing the constitutional amendments, the EU Progress Report mentions only that the Parliament and government have committed to passing the amendments as a matter of priority. However, in light of the rule of law and corruption issues, the constitutional amendments are not a prime focus in the 2023 EU Progress Report.

As the country awaits the parliamentary elections in the spring of 2024, the EC report raises important questions about the ability of North Macedonia to sustain linear progress towards meeting the conditions for EU membership. The path to fulfilling the EU reform agenda is still long, although there are reasons to remain cautiously optimistic, especially considering the EU’s renewed interest in enlargement.

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