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European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity holds its annual meeting in Skopje

From the 2nd until the 4th of December 2022, the Annual Meeting of the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity took place in Skopje, North Macedonia. Representatives and politicians from social-democratic foundations, think tanks, and parties gathered in the Macedonian capital to discuss the political situation in the region, the perspective on EU membership, and gender equality.

It was fitting that the meeting took place in North Macedonia, a country that has made many strides in its democratic development. A social-democratic and progressive government has calmed tensions since 2017, following the country’s sharp democratic decline in the preceding years.

In gender equality, too, it was pointed out by the Minister of Labor and Social Policy Jovana Trenchevska that North Macedonia stands out in the region, with a woman vice-chair of the social-democratic party and multiple women ministers in the government.

Women’s rights as a canary in the coal mine

Yet still, said Sanja Lukarevska, director of the Macedonian public revenue office, “we are facing political forces in this country that oppose our European and democratic values.” She said the task for the social democrats in North Macedonia is “to create an elastic democracy” that can defend itself against such forces.

It was pointed out that women’s rights and gender equality are a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to the rise of anti-democratic forces. Too often, women are the first to be targeted by these forces. Many women in political leadership positions taking difficult and brave decisions have to endure hate speech and intimidation.

Gender network meeting

Simultaneous with the Annual Meeting of the European Forum, the Central and Eastern European Network for Gender Issues (CEE Gender Network), which was established under the auspices of the  European Forum, held its meeting. Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski addressed the participants.

Other contributions came from Daša Šašić Šilović, chair of the CEE Gender Network, and former leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia Radmila Šekerinska, and Tamara Tripic, former Member of Parliament in Serbia for the Democratic Party.

North Macedonia’s path to the EU

Like many other Western Balkan countries, North Macedonia has for a long time been stuck in different ‘waiting rooms’, while the EU member states hesitate to move on the accession process.

It became clear from the discussions at the meeting how much the country has done and the difficult concessions it has had to make on its path to European Union membership, the most poignant being the changing of its name in 2018. The Macedonian parliament approved a constitutional amendment to change the country’s name to North Macedonia, narrowly securing a two-thirds majority.

“Pressing the green button on the name change was the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my life,” Pavle Bogoevski said about the decision at the event. “Being a politician means doing what is not popular, but what is right” said Macedonian Minister of Defence Slavjanka Petrovska about the name change.

Disappointments and broken promises

Upcoming is now a parliamentary vote about the hard-to-sell French proposal which was designed to unlock Bulgaria’s veto currently preventing North Macedonia and Albania from entering accession talks with the EU. The proposal would see Skopje change its constitution to include a Bulgarian minority and introduce other measures. Though the proposal is not popular, Macedonians present at the event were hopeful and said to “never underestimate” the pro-European forces of the country. The international pressure and the rational arguments for the proposal may sway the parliament in favour.

“Disappointments and broken promises” have led the pro-European movement in the Western Balkan to struggle to keep public support for the EU high. The public perception of the EU is decreasing. The internal democratic deficits in the European Union, and the continued democratic decline in states such as Hungary and Poland, undermine its credibility in the Western Balkans as a promoter of democracy.

The urgency at the meeting was clear. EU leaders must restore trust in the EU and take resolute actions toward the Western Balkan countries, giving them perspective on EU accession and breathing new life into the slow accession process.