Stef Blok: The Netherlands is your friend, but strict and fair

Exclusive interview with Stef Blok, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, for “Nezavisen/Independent”

 

 Mister Blok, Macedonia is on the way to become new member of NATO. According to your estimations, is it deserved and what it will mean for the country and for the region?

The Macedonian government has shown true political courage and leadership in the last period and made huge steps forward, especially when it comes to goodneighbourly relations. The agreements it has signed with Bulgaria and Greece are an example of cooperation in the region and beyond.

The invitation for Macedonia to join NATO’s accession process is well deserved and justified and I hope we will be able to celebrate Macedonia’s accession to the Alliance as the 30th member country soon.

I am also proud that the Netherlands has played a certain role in this, providing financial and technical assistance in the framework of the cooperation between our two defense ministries over the last 25 years. We are also one of the biggest contributors of the recently launched security service reform project implemented by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), which aims at strengthening the accountability within the security sector of Macedonia and development of effective parliamentary and judicial oversight.

We have worked together on the reforms in the field of rule of law, defense and security modernisation, promotion of human rights and strengthening of the democratic institutions in the country, and the result is now becoming visible.

For many years Macedonia has provided support to NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, working closely together with the other allies. The Macedonian Army has already undergone a process of reforms in line with the NATO standards and is prepared to take on the new role as part of the Alliance.

The biggest benefit of being a NATO member country is security and ability to address new security challenges, but it also brings along further democratisation of institutions, enhanced cooperation with the other member states, stability and economic prosperity. Having said the above, I am convinced that a secure and prosperous Macedonia is going to be an agent of stability in the whole region.

With the invitation we have also obligation, to conclude the Agreement with Greece about the name issue. In front of the referendum, what is your message to those who oppose it, including the President of the country and main opposition party?

I would first of all like to congratulate my Macedonian and Greek colleagues, as well as the prime ministers Zaev and Tsipras for solving an issue that has been in the way of Macedonia’s progress for over 20 years, and for paving the way to friendship and enhanced cooperation for the benefit of the people of the two countries.

The decision regarding the referendum is to be made by Macedonia, its institutions and its citizens. I can only hope that all relevant stakeholders make their choice according to what they see as best for the future of their country. Further steps in the Euro-Atlantic integration process of the country are within reach and this referendum is an important element of this.

What will happen if the referendum is negative? Will be that the end of the process or the door will be open for some solution about the name issue in the future? Is NATO going to erase completely the invitation?  

The recommendations of the Bucharest Summit in 2008 were very clear: the door remains open once Macedonia and Greece find a solution for the name issue. A solution is now here, and I understand it is not an easy one for both countries. However, we have to be able to look ahead and be aware of the good sides of this compromise.

Macedonian public was surprised that after so much money and efforts from your country to help the democratic changes in Macedonia during the authoritarian time, in Luxembourg you put veto on our date for negotiations. What was the reason for that?

I would not like to use the word ‘veto’ in this case. The decision that was made by all members of the Council, based on the progress the country has shown, clearly sets the EU path for the country. As I have already said, Macedonia has made some giant steps forward, but it is crucial to see a solid track record of the implementation of reforms in the most important fields such as the rule of law, the reform of the public administration and the security sector.

These reforms will make the country a real partner and an equal member of the EU family. But more importantly, these reforms will improve the quality of life of all the citizens in Macedonia, and that should be the key guiding principle for this and for any other government.

The Netherlands has always been and will continue to be a strict and fair friend of Macedonia. The fairness in this approach is the long-term assistance in all of the above-mentioned areas, amounting to over 210 million euros in the past 20 years.

As was stated in the declaration of partnership signed between our two countries last year, we both share an aspiration for a strong and prosperous European Union open to those that respect its values and are committed to promoting them.

Why Macedonia is in the same package with Albania, after nine recommendations for negotiations?

All candidate countries must fulfill all the conditions of the EU accession process and all candidate countries are assessed on their own merits. I’m happy that the Council provided Macedonia with a clear path with the reforms that Macedonia needs to implement before accession negotiations can be opened. The EU will be there to support all required steps – of course, the work can only be done by Macedonian institutions and nobody else. The EU pays great attention to regional cooperation, also with the EU regional policy that supports economic growth, creation of jobs and improved quality of life. We believe that countries in the region can help each other and thus contribute positively to the EU.

How do you estimate the political situation in the country now and what are your estimations about the reforms – are they with the right dynamic and what do you think should be our main task until June next year?

Your country has gone through a deep and long political crisis and we commend the current government for the progress and success it has achieved in such a short period of time, putting the country on the right track again.

The coming year will be crucial in maintaining this focus on reforms and implementation of the laws that have been adopted. We are aware that reform of the judiciary or the public administration is not an easy task, but the good news is that the EU will stand next to you and help you in the process. Again: this should not be done just because the EU requests it, but because Macedonian citizens deserve to live in a prosperous and fair society with equal opportunities for all.

As our prime minister Mark Rutte stated recently in his Future of Europe speech, the people of Europe can flourish only if the rule of law applies in all member states, because the EU is a union of laws and values. We cannot take the democratic achievements such as legal certainty, independent judiciary or free media for granted, but we need to constantly come back to them and work on them together.

The main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE is asking amnesty for the involved in the attack of the Parliament on 27 April. They speak about political repressions and dependent judiciary. How do you see that? 

Independent judiciary means judiciary free of political influence and pressure, and any sort of impunity cannot be part of the solution. The interest of the country and the citizens should always be above any personal or political party interest, and therefore I would like to call on all political stakeholders to play a constructive role.

As recommended by the European Council, there has to be a track record of legal accountability in order to return the trust of the citizens in the functioning of the system and its institutions.

There is lot of talks about building camps for migrants outside EU. Is the idea to build them in Western Balkan on the table?

Macedonia has played a key role in the past years, and we have both praised and supported it for its commitment. The recently concluded Status Agreement with Frontex is another step forward. Last week’s European Council once again reiterated that comprehensive approach to migration for all EU member-states. We agreed there that the cooperation and support with the Western Balkans region is key to preventing illegal migration, increase the capacities for border protection and improve return and readmission procedures. As you can see, those conclusions make no reference to any camps in the region.

Slobodanka Jovanovska