The Balkan country of Macedonia with a fledgling economy and unemployment of more than 30 percent is hoping that becoming a candidate for EU membership will bring more investors.
Macedonia's premier hopes his country's flag will regularly hang next to the EU's
A spanking new facility in the Macedonian capital of Skopje is pressing fruit into bottles. The Slovenian company, Fructal, is not far from home -- but it is the first time they have ventured outside their homeland and into a country that so recently averted a civil war. But that doesn't bother Jernej Murn, the company's manager in Macedonia.
"The main reason to come here is because we wanted to have a subsidiary outside the EU," he said. "And the customers know our brand. Besides, it is no small advantage that the wages are lower and that the price of fruit is very competitive."
Fructal produces 12 million liters of juice annually here. From here, their products are exported to Albania, Bosnia and Serbia-Montenegro. So far, the company is only one of a handful to take advantage of low wages and competitive prices for commodities. But Macedonians hope that its new status as a membership candidate for the EU will bring in more investors and technical know-how.
"Macedonia is very stable," said Christian Lüdtke Wöstman, an official with the German development bank, KfW in Skopje. "But Macedonians have to work to ensure that people outside the country know that."
Rewardi n g progress
Hoping to bolster economic and political stability in the former Yugoslavia, the European Union bestowed candidate status for Macedonia last week.
"It's an important signal," Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot told reporters after the decision.
The country of 2 million averted a civil war
Macedonia, which broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, has been praised for its concerted effort to implement reforms following the end of the ethnic Albanian uprising in 2001 which threatened to spiral into all-out civil war. It became the third former Yugoslav republic, after Croatia, to get a green light this year to open negotiations with Brussels, eventually to join the 25-nation bloc which already includes Slovenia.
Candidate status is a springboard to starting entry talks in the future and bolsters the prospects for EU aid. But there is no date set for entry negotiations. Turkey was a "candidate'' for almost six years before starting membership talks in October. The EU is also holding entry talks with Croatia and plans to admit Bulgaria and Romania by 2007 following last year's "big-bang" expansion to include 10 mainly eastern European nations.
Slow economic growth in western Europe and an upsurge in anti-immigration sentiment have fueled opposition to further EU expansion, raising doubts about how quickly Macedonia will move toward membership.
Celebrati n g a n yway
But regardless of the uncertainty, Macedonian leaders cracked open the champagne last week to celebrate the decision.
"This is a big day for us, we received recognition for everything we have done in the recent past," Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski told the state-owned Mia news agency after winning a green light to open accession negotiations with Brussels.
"The path is paved now and we know that we have real friends (in the EU) that value all our efforts," he added. "Today we got a visa for our European path. Macedonia finally leaves the Balkan road paved with cobblestones and joins a highway that leads to Europe."
Democracy has come to the former Yugoslavian country
At the same time, Macedonian officials said that the country needs to continue on its path of reform.
President Branko Crvenkovski told the nation that the decision to give Macedonia candidate status "brings a huge obligation to continue with even more devotion along the same road towards the goal."
The news from Brussels had been long awaited in Skopje. Following overnight special programs waiting for the announcement, electronic media on Saturday devoted their news programs to reports and reactions.
And after the decision became public, a few thousand people defied heavy snow and gathered Saturday evening in Skopje's main square to join celebrations, listen to some of Macedonia's most popular music stars and watch fireworks.
"I have been dreaming of this moment for almost 15 years," since Macedonia gained independence in 1991, Ljupka Nikolovska, a 45-year old teacher, jubilantly told AFP.