Statement by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference with Dimitar Kovachevski, Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia

Thank you very much, Prime Minister, dear Dimitar,

It is always a pleasure to be here in Skopje and to visit this wonderful country. I am here today basically to tell you, and the citizens of North Macedonia, that you are on a good track to join the European Union. I am very much looking forward to welcoming you. You, Prime Minister, have described the improvement and the steps forward over the last years. I must say that this is amazing to see the progress that North Macedonia has done. And your determination to move forward in the right direction is also impressive. We know that the European Union has also a long history of accession. It was not always a Union of 27, but we had one step of enlargement after the other. And it was always a history of respect for each other and for every nation, and of respect for the diversity we represent. Therefore, one day, I am absolutely convinced that we will welcome North Macedonia with its unique identity and its own language. Today, we do already have 24 different languages in the European Union. And one day, we will count Macedonian among them. We had very good talks today – thank you very much for this. And thank you very much to the members of the government that were also there at these talks.

North Macedonia has already come such a long way – and you described it with many impressive figures. My wish is that you should absolutely keep going. The screening process is indeed progressing smoothly. Thank you very much for the excellent work that you have done. The negotiation teams are doing a fantastic job. We aim to open negotiations on the fundamentals’ cluster still this year. And I know we can do it. Of course, I am aware of the ongoing work on amending your constitution. The first steps have been taken in your parliament – and that is good news. Now, I hope that all parties will seize this opportunity to move forward. Because there is a true momentum now, all over the European Union and those countries who want to join the European Union, for the enlargement process. So, it is important to seize that moment. I know how these processes can be challenging, of course. I am sure that you will live up to your reputation as a successful multi-ethnic society. You already embody the motto of the European Union. It is: ‘United in diversity’. This is actually also why Skopje has been awarded the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture 2028. Congratulations for that.

My second message is: We need to bring our economies closer. This is what we have already been doing. If we look back, we have our EUR 30 billion Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. It is delivering fast. For example, with the Oslomej and Bitola Solar Power Plants, we are investing heavily in renewable energy, and this is good because it gives us energy independence together. And the Bogdanci Wind Park. Sun and wind, you have them, are important resources for renewable energy. Of course, you are right, you mentioned it, last year, we went through a severe energy crisis. But we stood together, and we have moved mountains. We supported you with EUR 80 million to cushion the impact of high energy prices on households and businesses. We worked hard together to secure the energy that was needed throughout the winter, and we were successful. Prices have come down. We are still working on lowering them further. Those have been testing times, but important is that we overcame them together. This was the fact in the past, but we also discussed energy today. So, also for the future, whatever the challenges regarding energy are, let us face them together and let us overcome them together. We are ready to start disbursing the EUR 100 million in macro-financial assistance, that we announced. But, as I said, we need to do more, we need to bring our economies closer.

If you look at the figures, it shows a very successful development, but your economy is at 42% of the average income in the European Union. So, what we aim to do together is to double your economy in a decade. This is the reason why we present the new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans. You have described it. Indeed, there are more or less four important steps.

The first is: We give your companies access to key parts of the European Single Market. We basically open the doors to the European Single Market in seven different important sectors.

The second pillar is: We ask you to also open your Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans to your neighbours and complete this Common Regional Market. Because the potential of the Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans is huge. The Common Regional Market could, if we complete it, increase the GDP of the Western Balkans by 10%. So, it is a huge opportunity to move forward.

The third pillar is: If we want to open the doors of the Single Market and complete the Common Regional Market of the Western Balkans, this needs positive reforms, for example for the business environment. For North Macedonia, reforms could, for example, include an efficient public administration, sound public finances, and an improved business environment. And it is crucial as well to carry on with the reforms for the independence of the judiciary, and to fight against corruption. All these are reforms to be done to have a level playing field, between the European Single Market and the Western Balkan Common Regional Market.

As a fourth pillar, as reforms are never easy, these will come with investment. And we have indeed proposed a EUR 6 billion package for our Western Balkan partners. So, it is reforms and investment. Why are we proposing this? Because we made a very good experience with this principle in the European Union. We have an investment plan for our Member States that is called NextGenerationEU. We put it in place after the pandemic. And it works the same way: reforms and investment. It is working excellently. So, we thought: Why not open this principle also for our friends in the Western Balkans? The Growth Plan will boost your economy. Most importantly, it will create good jobs. And in parallel, it will also support you, of course, on your path towards the European Union.

I believe this is the right offer at the right time. The Plan has the potential to double the size of your economy in a decade. That is the goal. And it will play an important role on your path towards the European Union. You have consistently shown an amazing dedication on this path towards the European Union. For example, with your alignment with the EU’s response to Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. I also want to commend you on the great job you are doing as

Chairperson of the OSCE. So, you have shown time and again that you are a very reliable partner. And I thank you for that.

Thank you very much.