Joint press statement following the 16th meeting of the EU – North Macedonia Stabilisation and Association Council

The EU – North Macedonia Stabilisation and Association Council (SA Council) held its sixteenth meeting on 17 March in Skopje. The meeting was chaired by Mr Dimitar Kovachevski, Prime Minister of North Macedonia. The Delegation of North Macedonia also included Mr Bojan Maricikj, Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Bujar Osmani, Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The EU delegation was led by Mr Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Mr Olivér Várhelyi, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, represented the European Commission.

This was the first time that the SA Council meeting took place in North Macedonia, underlining the European Union’s full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans and to the accession negotiation process of North Macedonia. The meeting provided an opportunity to take stock of the progress that North Macedonia made in the preparations for EU membership and within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, and to discuss the further work needed. Participants welcomed the advanced process of analytical examination of the EU acquis (screening), while looking forward to the completion of the screening process.

Participants welcomed the clear EU strategic objective and ambition of North Macedonia to move forward in the accession negotiation process based on continuing the reform progress, while reaffirming EU commitment to further support North Macedonia in its endeavours towards EU membership. Participants also underlined the importance of continued reform and further consolidating the implementation of reforms, in the interest of the citizens of North Macedonia.

Given the new geopolitical reality following Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the EU strongly underlined the importance of further deepening the cooperation on foreign policy issues. The EU welcomed and strongly commended North Macedonia for its full and consistent alignment with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, including on EU restrictive measures. This is a strong expression of North Macedonia’s strategic choice and place in a community of values. The EU also welcomed the holding of the 2023 Chairpersonship of the OSCE by North Macedonia in the challenging global context.

Participants noted the importance for further overall progress in the areas covered by chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security). Building on progress already made, sustained efforts are needed to ensure the independence, professionalism, transparency and impartiality of the judicial system. The EU encouraged North Macedonia to further step-up investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in corruption cases, including at high level. The SA Council welcomed the conclusion of the Status Agreement between the EU and North Macedonia on operational activities carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in North Macedonia and looks forward to its entry into force.

The EU encouraged all parties in Parliament to continue to work together constructively and to build cross-party consensus focusing on making concrete steps in the negotiating process and maintaining the current reform momentum.

Regarding economic developments, the SA Council recalled the ‘Joint Conclusions of the Economic and Financial Dialogue between the EU and the Western Balkans and Turkey’ on the Economic Reform Programmes of 24 May 2022, and encouraged the government to focus on their implementation and follow-up. It called on the country to address remaining key challenges and to mitigate negative consequences of the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation remain essential elements of the enlargement process, as well as of the Stabilisation and Association Process. Existing bilateral agreements, including the Prespa agreement between North Macedonia and Greece and the Treaty on Friendship, Good-neighbourliness and Cooperation between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, need to be implemented in good faith.

The EU will continue to strengthen and intensify its engagement at all levels to support North Macedonia’s political, economic and social transformation, including through continued assistance based on tangible progress on the rule of law and socio-economic reforms, as well as on adherence to EU values, rules and standards. Following the adoption of the legal framework for the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) III, which is the main funding source, the EU underlined the need to strengthen the administrative capacity of IPA structures to ensure smooth implementation of IPA III programmes.

The EU is looking forward to the full implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan and the Green and Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, both important tools for bridging the socio-economic gap, improving infrastructure and connectivity, and supporting the region’s green and digital transition while building resilience and energy independence. In the last three years North Macedonia received EUR 276.3 million grants and EUR 362.5 million loans within the framework of the Economic and Investment Plan. Participants also recalled the importance of the EU’s EUR 1 billion Energy Support Package for the Western Balkans (EUR 500 million in grants and EUR 500 million in soft loans & guarantees), of which EUR 80 million for North Macedonia aims to protect the most vulnerable groups affected by the energy crises, in particular businesses, households and SMEs while advancing energy transition and diversification. The first tranche of EUR 72 million was already disbursed.

The Stabilisation and Association Council also held an exchange of views on developments in North Macedonia and the regional situation in the Western Balkans.