The National Convention on the European Union in the Republic of North Macedonia (the NCEU-MK), according to its format, is a democratic forum for open and transparent dialogue on issues related to the European Union accession negotiations. In its very essence, the NCEU-MK is a platform that allows for a broad range of citizens who command a certain expertise to influence the content of changes (reforms), and thus shape them in line with general public interest.
The concept of the National Convention on the European Union has proven adequate in the process of convergence with the EU. In the Republic of Slovakia, where it was first implemented, it was tagged as “good practice for EU access”. With this mobilizing methodology, the process of adopting, accepting, and implementing political decisions concerning EU membership becomes more democratic, since it involves a dialogue among representatives of the Government, the Assembly and other relevant actors, with civil society playing an important part. “The EU integration structures cannot be adopted by mere window dressing. The National Convention offers huge support due to three aspects: first, it allows for an inclusive public debate on EU integration; second, it institutionalizes the public debate by initializing partnerships between different segments of society; and third, it unites decision makers at all levels of political system.”
The first cycle of National Convention on the European Union in the Republic of North Macedonia started in October 2017 and ended in September 2019. Right after the fist cycle ended, in October 2019, the second cycle of NCEU-MK begun.
During its first cycle of working group sessions, the National Convention on the European Union in the Republic of North Macedonia worked on the following chapters:
- Working Group 1: Agriculture and rural development (Chapter 11)
- Working Group 2: Social policy and employment (Chapter 19)
- Working Group 3: Judiciary and fundamental rights (Chapter 23)
- Working Group 4: Justice, freedom, and security (Chapter 24)
During the second cycle of NCEU-MK, these Working groups continue to work, but also a new Working group has been established to work in the Chapter 27.
- Working Group 5: Environment (Chapter 27)
During the two years, from the first cycle, the NCEU-MK experienced several phases of development, while constantly strengthening its basic mission: to support and promote the EU integration process in the Republic of North Macedonia. Although there has always been a consensus concerning the EU perspective of the country, and notwithstanding the high acceptance of EU membership by the citizens (over 80%), it is necessary to work on a more essential understanding of what this membership entails. The NCEU-MK’s potential to motivate, to involve, and to unite, proved a unique feature as the EU integration process had to be taken further, from the political institutions to relevant experts and the general public. The NCEU-MK succeeded in conveying the message that EU integration concerns citizens’ organizations, enterprises, trade unions, universities, local authorities, farmers, as well as every single citizen.
The NCEU-MK and the Government Secretariat for European Affairs (SAE) have established a stable cooperation and are continuously exchanging information on the progress on the different Chapters. SAE representatives regularly participated in the working meetings and working group sessions of the NCEU-MK, contributing to the discussions and taking part in adopting the recommendations. The NCEU-MK working groups were regularly informed about the explanatory screening sessions, which provided the experts with the opportunity to gain insight into issues from their area of expertise currently negotiated.
One should mention that more than 100 active citizens’ organizations were involved in NCEU-MK activities, which attests to its direct legitimacy from civil society as well. The first systematic input from civil society for the negotiations on four chapters came from the NCEU-MK. This is particularly true for Chapter 11 (Agriculture and rural development), and Chapter 19 (Social policy and employment), since the systematization of those negotiations chapters is still in its initial phase. As for Chapters 23 and 24, a network of citizens’ organizations had already monitored the reforms in the field of judiciary and fundamental rights for several years, with a systematic approach and regular analyses.
The NCEU-MK working groups have 20 to 25 regular members each, with additional participants joining them for each session, often prominent experts on the session’s specific topic. On average, 50 participants took part in every working group session. Every session was prepared and organized by aProgram Council, consisting of the regular working group experts (two or three per working group), the co-chairs (one high official from the ministry in charge and one civil society representative per working group), the National NCEU-MK Coordinator and staff members. This composition allows for the conclusions and recommendations to circulate among the relevant stakeholders. Also, the website of the NCEU-MK offers electronic opportunity to a broader circle of citizens to give personal opinion on the recommendations, and to raise questions to be answered by engaged teams of experts.
The NCEU-MK’s activities are based on a standardized methodology for dialogue. Within this structured dialogue, the roles of the actors are defined, with one of the goals being to share experience and knowledge on a certain field and to harmonize the positions of the participants by reaching consensus on reform-related issues. During the initial working group sessions, it became clear that there is a considerable amount of good information on the negotiation chapters, but, at the same time, a lack of information exchange among the stakeholders active in the same given area. It was stated that there is no actual system of information exchange among the state institutions themselves, much less between citizens’ organizations and state institutions.
Here, the NCEU-MK’s impact makes a difference, taking into account that the recommendations that result from each working group session are a considerable input for the state’s negotiation capacity. The involvement of different stakeholders in the working group sessions offers the opportunity to iron out opinions and by means of arguments to produce feasible recommendations. A further achievement of the NCEU-MK is the establishment of direct contact among state institutions, citizens’ organizations and other stakeholders, thus lowering the barrier with regard to formal institutional authority. The benefit brought about by the NCEU-MK is the group identity and the team spirit of the working group members, whose communication and cooperation continue after the sessions. This makes the NCEU-MK a platform, which strengthens the legitimacy of the institutions for future accession negotiations, as well as platform that would bring closer the EU integration process to the ordinary people. The discussions have shown that there are facts and knowledge from the field, which have so far been beyond the institutions’ scope.
General conclusions from the activities of the NCEU-MK are the following:
- The NCEU-MK has developed into an institutional dialogue among relevant stakeholders, which can be seen from the continuity of activities, regular membership, as well as the commitment and regular cooperation by all stakeholders.
- The NCEU-MK has been accepted as a platform, which allows different stakeholders to express their opinion. It draws its legitimacy from the large number of participants, who have stated in public that the NCEU-MK offers them the possibility to discuss crucial issues from their areas of interest with state institution representatives.
- The NCEU-MK offers the state institutions input for the negotiations.
- The NCEU-MK motivates the working group members to thoroughly study the negotiation chapters and to become familiar with relevant EU directives.
- The NCEU-MK is very inclusive, especially concerning Chapters 11 and 19, where several civil society networks have united, and the eagerness to include further civil society organizations and stakeholders is especially distinct.
- Within the NCEU-MK, a considerable base of information, conclusions, and recommendations is being created, adding to the knowledge database on the chapters to be used during the negotiations process.
- The NCEU-MK has established a regular communication between NCEU-MK experts and Slovak experts.
- Once North Macedonia gets a date for the start of EU accession negotiations, this will add importance to the NCEU-MK, which will play an amplified role in contributing to the negotiation process.
NCEU-MK is implemented in partnership with Slovak Foreign Policy Association – Bratislava.
The NCEU is financially supported by the US People –USAID as well as by the SlovakAid.
Professor Mileva Gjurovska
National Coordinator for the NCEU-MK