Lake Ohrid. Photo: flickr/xJasonRogersx
Lake Ohrid. Photo: flickr/xJasonRogersx

On 1 October 2004, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, arrived in Skopje to hand the Macedonian prime minister a book-length document containing over 1,900 questions about his country. This was the European Union's formal response to Macedonia's application for EU membership submitted in March 2004. Most of the questions were detailed and highly technical, such as the following:

"Provide flowcharts/organigrammes outlining levels of competencies and showing management lines to describe the structure and organisation of the services in charge of food safety. The division of competencies and the links between central, regional and local level should appear clearly (degree of decentralisation/devolution of competence should be defined)."

The issues ranged from consumer protection to prison management, from agricultural policy to the organization of the judiciary. Macedonia's Department of European Integration, a new government institution – then run by young deputy prime minister Radmila Sekerinska – was put in charge of mobilizing hundreds of civil servants across all ministries and public agencies to prepare answers to the questionnaire. These would run to nearly 4,000 pages plus another 10,000 pages of supporting material, mainly translations of laws, regulations and other documents.

Some of the questions had never before been asked in Macedonia. Institutional islands within a highly fragmented administration suddenly found themselves forced to articulate their role and justify their existence. In effect, the EU asked for an X-ray of the Macedonian state.

Such were the unspectacular beginnings of member-state building. Romani Prodi's visit to Skopje was overshadowed by a bitter dispute over a controversial referendum on decentralization, which was stirring the embers of ethnic tension. Preoccupied with the country's shrinking economy and spiralling unemployment, few Macedonians saw Prodi's delivery of the EU questionnaire as a life-changing event.

Yet the questionnaire was a crucial first step towards EU membership, one that many other Western Balkan countries still have not made 5 years later. On 14 February 2005, after four and a half months of hard work, Macedonian prime minister Vlado Buckovski presented Prodi's successor, Jose Manuel Barroso, with Skopje's reply to the EU questionnaire. On 9 November the European Commission delivered its "avis" or opinion on the Macedonian application, suggesting that the country become an official candidate but stopping short of suggesting a starting date for accession negotiations. On 16 December 2005 the European Council in Brussels officially declared Macedonia a candidate country.

Macedonia has remained at this stage for more than four years now. The European Commission has cited election irregularities and insufficient reforms by the Gruevski governments as the main reasons for further delays in opening membership negotiations. In fact, the name dispute with Greece is at least as important a factor. Time and time again Athens has blocked Macedonia's path towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Greece not only vetoed Macedonia's accession to NATO in April 2008, but also (on 8 December 2009) objected to giving it a date for opening membership talks – this despite the Commission's earlier recommendation to launch negotiations.

Once Macedonia is allowed to start negotiations, the transformative power of EU member-state building will come into play. How? Conceptually, it is helpful to break down the transformation into three broad categories: an administrative revolution; a process of social and economic convergence; and a change in the substance and the dynamic of democratic governance.

The administrative revolution begins with joint teams of national officials and European Commission staff gauging a country's laws, policies, and institutional structures against the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire – the EU's legislation, policies, and standards. Adopting and implementing the acquis requires undertaking a comprehensive reassessment of the role of government, reforming old policies, and extending the remit of the state to new fields of activity. It entails reviewing the functions of government institutions, rationalizing existing structures, and creating new ones. It also involves drafting a great deal of new legislation to implement European norms and the rules of the single market. The Commission offers technical assistance, typically by pairing officials from EU member states with their counterparts in the candidate countries. A rigorous annual review of progress, made public in hard-hitting Commission reports, is also conducted. Within a few years, very few stones in the structure of public administration will have been left unturned.

The second element of member-state building is economic and social convergence – that is, the process of catching up with EU standards of living. One of the Union's core values is cohesion, or as the Maastricht Treaty puts it, "reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions." The regional and rural development policies created to assist the EU's poorer areas consume the lion's share of its budget.

The EU has developed special programmes for accession countries. The Phare, ISPA and Sapard programmes, which played a crucial role in triggering change in the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, have now all been replaced by IPA, the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance. States that have acquired formal EU candidate status can tap into all 5 components of the IPA; potential candidates (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) can only access the first two components.

Though the IPA has some impact on accession countries' economic growth, its main objective is to prepare them for the absorption of much larger structural funds (which will become available once they become members).

Macedonia's indicative financial allocation for IPA 2007-2012 (million EUR)








Transition Assistance and Institution Building







Cross-border Co-operation







Regional Development







Human Resources Development







Rural Development














Even more importantly, the nature of EU assistance changes profoundly, as it focuses on supporting a long-term process of convergence.

Each candidate country is required to thoroughly assess its level of competitiveness in agriculture and industry and to analyse the constraints that it faces in these sectors. It has to identify its current situation, explain where it would like to be in seven years (the EU budgetary cycle), and describe in detail the programs and instruments needed to achieve that goal in so-called "National Development Plans".

The third and last element of the member-state building model is a change in the nature of the political process itself, flowing from the combined effects of administrative revolution and revitalization of national development policy. The administrative reforms require states to reconstruct the vertical and horizontal links among different public agencies and levels of government, creating a more coherent and comprehensive administration. EU programmes require prospective EU members to institute mechanisms for continuous dialogue with social partners – private business, farmers, trade unions, and other civil society actors – thereby creating not just a framework but also a blueprint for policy making.

In countries with a weak tradition of providing services to private farmers or social protection to vulnerable citizens, this is a profound change. It means that citizens and social groups who in the past barely interacted with the state become participants in a consultative democratic process.

An area where the EU's transformative power could be observed at work was the visa liberalisation process that the EU opened in 2008 in the Western Balkans. Through the setting of clear (and ambitious) criteria, a credible reward (visa free travel) and a transparent process major changes were achieved in a rather short period of time. On 19 December the citizens of Macedonia, together with those of Montenegro and Serbia, were granted visa-free travel to the EU, with Albanian and Bosnia likely to follow in mid-2010 (read more here).

21 December 2009