Albania and Macedonia have been given the go-ahead to prepare for EU accession talks – though not until June 2019. In an interview with DW, German Deputy Minister Michael Roth says it’s the right decision.
DW: There have been contradictory interpretations of the decision in Albania and Macedonia. The opposition parties see it as a negative signal, the governments as a positive one. What should we make of this?
Michael Roth: Albania and Macedonia have taken a big step forward towards membership of the EU. Our Northern Macedonian and Albanian friends can be very proud of this. They have achieved a lot, they've implemented many reforms but ,of course, a great deal still needs to be done. And between now and June of next year the bridge we've built needs to be sturdy enough that both countries will succeed in walking across it towards accession negotiations with the European Union.
France and the Netherlands were opposed to the move and had to be convinced. What arguments did they put forward?
There is of course an argument that has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation in Skopje and in Tirana, namely the crisis-rocked European Union wondering whether, in these times, when we need to invest all our energies into getting our own house in order, we can also manage to conduct ambitious accession negotiations.
I don't find this argument convincing, because I remain convinced that it is in the interest of the whole of Europe for the Western Balkans to remain, or to become, democratic, stable and firmly anchored in the rule of law.
When you say that the problem doesn't lie with the countries themselves but with the EU, there's reason to fear that in a year's time the EU will still be dealing with its own problems, and the decision will be postponed again.
So far I've only mentioned one argument, which has nothing to do with these two states. However, there are of course still European Union member states that have doubts about whether the steps taken so far towards reform are sufficient, especially with regard to resolutely combating corruption, fighting organized crime, and strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.
This is also why my government put a compromise on the table that was very favorably received. I'm glad we've now agreed a common position that should, above all, be seen as an encouragement to the forces of reform in Albania and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Should these countries also offer their help with regard to the refugee crisis?
There are no unfair deals between the European Union and these two states. We recognize that the Western Balkans have already contributed a great deal in terms of taking in refugees.
To be quite clear: There is no connection between preparedness to take in refugees and [EU] enlargement. This is a free, sovereign decision for these two countries, and I think it would be most unfair if pressure were to be exerted on them. One issue has nothing whatsoever to do with the other.
What precisely does Albania need to do by the end of June 2019?
With the so-called "vetting process” Albania has set new standards for strengthening the independence of the judiciary, and within the framework of the vetting process we also expect to see a clear breakthrough concerning the screening of judges and public prosecutors. If more decisive action can also be taken to combat organized crime, that would also be a confidence-building measure, especially for those states that are still rather hesitant.
And Macedonia? The Macedonian president is refusing to sign the agreement with Greece about renaming his country. The Macedonian opposition is against it. Aren't you worried that the situation might deteriorate between now and September, when the referendum on the new name is due to be held?
I can only appeal to all the political decision-makers in Skopje to fulfill their historical responsibility. Perhaps they don't all know what's at stake. Of course I can understand how painful this compromise may be for some of them, but it's the key to the door to membership of the European Union and NATO.
It's the key that opens the door to permanent peace and reconciliation in the region, and I have the impression that the vast majority of people in the region have understood this. But clearly we also still need to learn that the Western Balkans deserve more of our attention, because stability and democracy in the Western Balkans should be in the EU's primary interest. We cannot allow a political vacuum to develop there.
Michael Roth is a deputy minister for European affairs in the German Foreign Ministry.