Last December, Slovakia and Czechia were not in a position to support the draft Council conclusion on enlargement and, to our surprise, we were labelled as troublemakers trying to complicate the whole process.
On the contrary, we were forced to act in order to prevent the enlargement from being dragged into historical issues and the EU into a role of an arbiter.
We therefore need to clarify our motivations.
A strong EU needs a strong and stable neighbourhood.
That has always been one of the key objectives of the EU enlargement policy – to help the countries with a prospect of EU membership to embrace the EU acquis and its values as well as to offer them a partnership of equals.
It is thanks to this approach that Czechia and Slovakia are in the EU today.
For us, the enlargement is not just a pragmatic element of the Union’s ambitions – to enhance its place as a global player that cannot tolerate malign external influence in its neighbourhood.
In addition, we feel morally obliged to offer the prospect of EU membership to other European countries, which are willing to meet the conditions as we did in the past.
That is why we have supported the advancing and deepening of the enlargement policy ever since joining the EU in 2004.
Our focus now is on the Western Balkan countries with a view to ensuring security and stability of our closest neighbours.
We should keep their European prospects explicit and open. The opposite would mean leaving the doors open to external powers that are very eager to make their way in with a purpose to dismantle and destabilise the European project.
This is why we have always been staunch supporters of the EU accession process – it is making not only our neighbours, but all of us stronger and safer too.
Keeping the process alive has required and will always require moments when we need to seriously consider the consequences of our decisions and to be honest with ourselves.
In this context, an example of the EU sending mixed signals to the aspiring countries is its approach to North Macedonia.
This Western Balkan country has been finding itself in the centre of the EU ambiguity for 15 years now.
Over time, it had fulfilled all the conditions required, even the most difficult ones related to its own name. We doubt any current EU member state would have the capacity and will to do the same. Yet the promised reward of opening accession talks with the EU did not come.
In 2019, the decision of the European Council to grant opening of the negotiations was postponed not once, but twice.
Then last year, North Macedonia was confronted with yet another obstacle, and yet again was asked to comply with requests related to its national identity.
Moreover, in autumn last year, a new and fairly surprising request was made – to make the EU a collective judge of historical interpretations – of what is right, wrong, true and false in the past hundreds of years of history of the Balkans.
Above all, at the end of the year there was a request to make this judgement a formal part of the accession criteria. This would turn the EU into an arbiter of national histories.
The EU would have to ponder at every stage of the enlargement negotiation the compliance of some countries with historical interpretations of the others. It is a natural role of the EU to be a moderator and a broker.
Nevertheless, it should not collectively become a referee of disputes and misunderstandings of the past hundreds of years. This would be a major deviation from the principles that have so far governed the enlargement process and that are a part of our enhanced approach – transparency and predictability.
Therefore, we do not support any direction that would sanction the interpretation of historical issues. The notion of North Macedonia’s obligation to rectify the alleged misinterpretation of history is not acceptable.
Additional conditions would open the way for further bilateral demands in the future, potentially complicating the entire process for the years or even decades to come.
Not long ago the EU enlargement process was a showcase policy of the EU. It was the prime example of the EU ambitions and abilities, its success story.
Now we have to admit that for some time the enlargement policy was slipping down the priority list of the EU. We do not dispute the objective reasons for this as we acknowledge their existence.
Nevertheless, enlargement had become something to tuck away for a better season when our own house is fully in order. The prospect of joining the EU seemed to be less within reach and the process was gasping at every tiny stage.
Together with the European Commission we had worked hard on our new and enhanced approach to counter this and to bring new and fresh impetus to our efforts. It would be an opportunity lost for the EU if it reintroduced second thoughts or failed to honour its own principles and deliver on its promises.
Such ambiguity would benefit the nationalist and isolationist rhetoric in our neighbourhood, which would not be in the EU’s interest and could in turn incite a number of dangerous frictions and – not to be excluded – conflicts.
We need a straightforward and foreseeable enlargement process that is based on measurable criteria, clear commitments and political will. The conditions are many, the accession process is already complex and demanding and we must avoid introducing elements that include a high degree of interpretation and emotion.
The EU is not here to determine who is right or wrong on issues related to history, language or identity. The EU is based on unity in diversity, not judgement and categorisation. Open historical bilateral issues need to be solved bilaterally. It is not an easy or a short process, but it can be done. We know that from our own experience.
We are confident that the obstacles will be overcome, as always, and we will be able to move on to the next steps, e.g. working under the leadership of the Portuguese presidency on a consensus on the negotiating framework for North Macedonia and Albania.