Uncertainty for North Macedonia

  • July 2019
  • Flamur Gruda

Uncertainty for North Macedonia


Disappointment in North Macedonia, which had hoped that its historic agreement with Greece and the friendship treaty with Bulgaria would be rewarded with EU accession talks.


Source: Pixabay


North Macedonia made a key, meaningful advance towards EU accession by resolving a 27-year-long dispute with Greece over its name. The “Prespa” agreement of June 2018 opened a path to NATO and EU membership talks, which had previously been blocked by Greece.


The Western Balkans expected to get the green light to progress their accession ambitions from the EU in June 2019. In reality, the Council of the European Union decided to postpone the decision on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Instead, they decided to reassess the matter in October, with no guarantees. The two aspiring nations may find this a bitter pill to swallow, having been promised accession talks in exchange for undertaking reforms.

The leadership in North Macedonia currently possesses a slim majority in parliament, comprised of both Macedonian and Albanian political parties. One third of North Macedonia’s population belongs to the Albanian minority. The coalition, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Social-Democratic Union, was instrumental in achieving and was able to convince Macedonian citizens of the potential benefits that come with integration. To resolve the name dispute with Greece, Skopje agreed to change the country’s constitution, including the country’s name, despite polls and an invalid referendum reflecting a divided society on the issue.

As well as the historic Prespa agreement with Greece, North Macedonia also signed a friendship treaty with neighbouring Bulgaria in 2017.

Nikolaos Tzifakis, an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Peloponnese, warned that the credibility of EU accession conditionality would be “seriously undermined” if the Council delayed its decision until October. He added that it would “also weaken the legitimacy of Zaev’s coalition government in Skopje that has undertaken considerable political cost with the implementation of the Prespa Agreement.”

External actors in the region like Russia, China, and Turkey could benefit from the political atmosphere and the inaction of the Council to start the accession talks. China, for example, has already begun to implement the ‘Balkan Silk Road’ plan and is currently developing projects in Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and potentially North Macedonia. The plan involves developing ports, roads, railways and other transportation infrastructure in the region, from loans that state owned Chinese banks offer to governments, and carried out largely by Chinese construction companies that seek opportunities to expand into European markets.

In North Macedonia, China is interested in constructing the Kicevo-Ohrid and the Miladinovci-Stip motorways.

In the absence of A bold attempt to engage with the countries in the Western-Balkans, the EU risks an increase in nationalist sentiments in the region. In case the Council does not give a green light in October to start the accession talks, the pro-Western coalition government in North Macedonia could weaken, derailing the slight progress already made.

In the event of failure to maintain the possibility of the region’s eventual EU integration, two other Western-Balkan countries that are now awaiting their candidate status might also become politically unstable. Namely, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which both saw bloody civil wars in the 90s. This would also send a negative message to the other countries that already started the accession negotiations, Montenegro and Serbia (not to mention the already alienated Turkey).



Written by: Flamur Gruda at the Centre for European Progression




Time for a Rethink on Libya?

  • July 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Time for a Rethink on Libya?

Failure to change course on Libya could undermine the EU

The Libyan flagSource: Pixabay

The clamour of officials, lobbyists, politicians and campaigners seeking to get their policy proposals on newly inaugurated European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen’s desk will soon renew in earnest. As a former defence minister, Ms von der Leyen will already be aware of the resurgence of one of, if not the, most pressing foreign policy issues for the European Union, strategically and politically.

Libya highlights a number of EU weaknesses at a time when it wants to show strength and renewal, and it must rethink its policy towards the country. Recent events have thrown this into sharp focus. To summarise the current crisis, Libya is divided into two camps: the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the House of Representatives alongside Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). There have been multiple rounds of talks between the parties in an attempt to overcome the divide and move towards a constitution and democratic elections. Haftar’s forces have been attempting to take Tripoli since early April, and over 44 people were killed in an airstrike suspected to have been conducted by the LNA on a migrant detention centre.

Reacting to this situation challenges the EU on two fronts: reconciling its desire to be a relevant foreign policy actor with the differences in opinion among its member states, and reconciling its desire to be a normative power with the realities of its migration policy.

On the first point, one of the main challenges for Libyan reconciliation is the number of external actors involved in the conflict. At a Brussels event organised by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Taher El-Sonni, Senior Political Advisor to PM Sarraj, stated that every time Libyans approach a solution they get dragged back because of the proxy war. Qatar, Turkey, and Italy are aligned with the GNA, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are aligned with the LNA.


France has become increasingly dependent on Haftar in its counter-terrorism policy. Italy, on the other hand, is focused on cooperating with the GNA on migration. The Franco-Italian divide is not unique in hindering the emergence of a genuine European foreign policy. Whatever the issue in question, producing a common position between 28 Member States will naturally result in extensive compromise. Individual Member States may also end up undermining the EU’s position as a whole. For example, el-Sonni also criticised France for providing material support to the LNA, in relation to the discovery of French-owned missiles located in an LNA base. France appears to take the same line as the UN Security Council and the EU in supporting the GNA, while tacitly sending supplies to the LNA.


At a time when Russia and the USA do not want to step up to the plate, there is an opportunity for the EU to take the initiative in convincing foreign actors to step back and allow Libyans to establish a democratic political future. However, to do so, it would have to start closer to home, with France and Italy. A lowest-common-denominator stance in the midst of a civil war taking place in the EU Neighbourhood will not be sufficient, and will further undermine the EU’s attempts to be recognised as a serious actor in its own backyard.

On the other hand, the EU has not usually sought to act as a serious global power in the traditional sense. It has sought to appeal to its past, its achievements, and its values to act as a ‘normative power‘. The Libyan situation, and the EU’s reaction to it, is undermining that image. It is well known and well documented that Libya is not a safe port for disembarkation: according to the Council of Europe, “migrants and refugees who are intercepted or rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard, and subsequently disembarked in Libya, are routinely subjected to unlimited and arbitrary detention, torture, extortion, forced labour, sexual violence, and other inhuman or degrading treatment. Moreover, violent conflict in different cities of Libya has put the safety of migrants and refugees, including children, many of whom remain trapped in detention centres, in grave additional risk.”

Indeed, two lawyers have submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court that accuses the EU and its member states of ‘premediated complicity’ in crimes against humanity. It does so on two grounds: firstly, that decision-makers knew that replacing Italy’s search and rescue mission Mare Nostrum with the scaled-down Frontex Operation Triton would lead to thousands of deaths in the name of deterrence. Secondly, it maintains that forcing NGOs to stop operating and supporting the Libyan Coastguard facilitated illegal pushbacks and directly led to the human rights abuses committed in Libyan detention camps. The EEAS representative, Colin Scicluna, at the CEPS event rejected out of hand the idea that the EU could be complicit in crimes against humanity, based on its previous positive track record, and stated that there were no simple solutions in Libya.

In terms of solutions, the EU must act with urgency to maintain their positive humanitarian track record. In line with the UNHCR and IOM joint statement, returning those rescued on the Mediterranean to Libya is no longer an option. NGOs should be allowed to freely operate, and Member States must live up to their legal responsibilities.


The only way forward for Libyan cooperation is to resolve the ongoing conflict in a political settlement, and that requires taking search and rescue back into European hands until such point as the Libyan authorities have the capacity to fully meet international human rights standards. For the EU, the priority focus must not be curtailing migration flows, but healing its internal divisions to build sustainable migration and foreign policies that allow for unified, effective action and respect for international obligations.


Bucharest Calling: – “Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue”

  • July 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Bucharest Calling: – “Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue”

The Centre For European Progression goes to Bucharest

Source: Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue

We recently had the chance to go to Bucharest, where we met up with our partners from across Europe. NGOs from Italy, Bulgaria, Malta, Romania, Finland, Austria, Portugal and Estonia, as well as CFEP from Belgium, are all represented in the TRAIN – Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue project.

This project comes under Key Action 3 of the Erasmus+ Programme, and seeks to use the Structured Dialogue method to develop recommendations on migrant integration policies following input from young people.

To cut through the Euro-jargon, what this means in practice is that there are three Key Actions in the Erasmus+ scheme and all funded projects have to come under one of those umbrellas. Our project falls under number 3 – Support for Policy Reform – as it seeks to gather young people’s views on how to reform integration policy.


This is where the Structured Dialogue comes in. The European Commission wants to work with civil society organisations to hear from young people themselves. The Structured Dialogue takes place in cycles of three Council presidencies, lasting 18 months. The current cycle involves the Romanian, Finnish and Croatian presidencies and has a particular theme – ‘Creating opportunities for youth’. Each EU country carries out a national consultation of young people and youth organisations during the 18-month period.  The participating organisations’ role is to provide a more direct link between youth and European policy making, by holding discussions with young people in their respective communities in order to hear their views and experiences surrounding migration and integration.


The closing event will be held in Brussels in June 2020, organised by the CFEP. This is when the results of the dialogues will be submitted to the European Commission, in the form of concrete policy recommendations.
Over the last few days, CFEP and our partners met to discuss the Structured Dialogue, the project actions and best practices on integration from our countries. It was particularly interesting to hear about our partners’ experiences. For example, our Finnish partners have a number of members with a refugee background, and our Estonian partners have a dance company as part of their NGO and are working on connecting Estonian and Russian speaking communities. In Austria, our partners have discovered that young people need time and explanations in order to confidently take part in policy discussions. Finally, in Malta, our partners have experienced a disparity in treatment of migrants based on their wealth and their country of origin. Equally, they found it interesting that in Belgium, integration courses are mandatory for most non-EU newcomers.

Source: Tracing Integration Policies Through Structured Dialogue

Our next steps as a group are to discover more about how these different policies work on the ground, and to develop recommendations for Europe as a whole based on the views and experiences of young people.

If you or your organisation wish to participate in this project, please contact hannah.bettsworth@c4ep.eu.

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West


Source: kremlin.ru

“[Russian] money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment.”


On the 19th of June, the Martens Centre and the Free Russia Foundation held a report launch on the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West. It is a timely publication, with the recent readmission of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s decision to begin judicial proceedings against named individuals over MH17.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to read Misrule of Law without feeling compelled to act. The report is structured in two sections: the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West, and Russian manipulation of Western policy. Reading the first section, it is psychologically easy to forget that this is non-fiction. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything will be fine right up until the point that it is not. Even then we convince ourselves things will return to normal. It is this phenomenon – normalcy bias – that contributes to plane crash survivors sitting in their seats while fire burns around them.

The human mind wants to believe that these detailed discussions of Kremlin interference are tales of intrigue featuring money-laundering and the mafia. They are, however, all too real. The Russian state has systematically manipulated Western institutions and systems in order to protect its interests. A dedicated Spanish prosecutor spent years investigating the Russian mafia. He produced nearly 500 pages of information on suspected criminal activity by Russian officials. He also faced serious personal risk, only for the Kremlin to protect crime lords from extradition and the National Criminal Court to acquit those who were tried for suspected mafia ties. The Court’s reasoning was that there was ‘insufficient proof’ of their investments in Spain being linked to organised crime. Money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment. In reality, the dockyards fell into avoidable bankruptcy due to money laundering – but not before local and federal German governments had obtained loans worth €240million to support the project.

The argument for Russia’s reinstatement to PACE is that the Council of Europe can constrain Russian behaviour. This is particularly hard to square with the Yukos case. Russia cooperated with an independent international arbitral tribunal and disavowed the whole process when it did not go their way. There is no reason to believe the Kremlin would treat civil society related judgments any differently. The former shareholders of Yukos (who were awarded billions of dollars in compensation for the company’s expropriation) attempted to attach Russian non-diplomatic assets abroad, which led to Russian threats against France and Belgium. Both countries reformed their national laws to, essentially, give Putin a veto over whether creditors could seize Russian property on their territories.

What makes the report so compelling is that these are not even its most concerning cases. Russian front organisation ‘think tanks’ participate in promoting the Kremlin’s narrative abroad. It is well-known that Russia Today and Sputnik are two of the chief producers of disinformation. Misrule of Law’s contribution is to warn its audience that Russian links to populist governments in Europe have reached incredibly worrying levels. Hungary, in particular, has seen its backsliding on democracy and the rule of law accompanied by extensive rapprochement with Russia. It appears to keep the EU/NATO line, but maintains strong bilateral relations with Russia. They jointly identified which GRU officer the Hungarians could expel to be seen to act after the Skripal attack. Italy and Austria retain stronger checks and balances that have prevented them from going that far down the same path, but the seriousness of compromised security and home affairs agencies in EU and/or NATO member states cannot be overstated.

To select a final, particularly worrying trend in relation to the Skripal case: “Whitehall observed a 4,000 percent uptick in pro-Russian propaganda since the abortive assassination, most of it coming from unmanned algorithms or ‘bots’, although other prominent peddlers of disinformation were all-too-real people who’d previously rushed to [the] Kremlin’s defense on Syrian chemical weapons use or MH17 or the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers.” [Misrule of Law, p100]. In other words, the extent of Russian manipulation of the Western debate is such that ordinary people are willing to spread the Kremlin’s narrative: even when it involves accusing the United Kingdom of carrying out the attack to stoke anti-Russian sentiment. Indeed, this echoes the Kremlin’s strategy in the Baltic states to attempt to generate a sense of grievance among ethnic Russians.

That is the key takeaway message from the report. The rights, freedoms and institutions the West holds dear are being used against it by the Kremlin. Not only that, but Western states repeatedly allow it to happen. To revisit the plane crash metaphor, the report’s authors are the flight crew shouting at frozen passengers to get up and act to save themselves. The PACE vote is an example of exactly what not to do. It is not impossible to counteract the Kremlin’s actions, but recognition of the issue is only the first step. It requires continual and repeated commitment to enforcing sanctions and the rule of law. Most importantly, it requires recognition that we can only protect and promote European values if we are willing to stand up for them even when it is politically and financially inconvenient.

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