"Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." - Abraham Lincoln
The Macedonian government has managed to re-attract the focus of the EU and NATO in the past few months. The diplomatic teams have worked hard (and hopefully in consultation with legal teams as well) to proceed in overcoming the long-term name dispute with Greece, followed by signing an Agreement. Hence “after Macedonia and Greece resolved a decades-old dispute about the former’s name which had blocked the EU membership process, opening talks would mark the clearest step yet in the bloc’s attempts to renew its expansion to the six western Balkan countries after years of neglect for the region.” (https://in.reuters.com/article/eu-balkans/eu-divided-over-balkan-accession-as-nato-says-macedonia-welcome-idINKBN1JL128). In the same spirit, the Macedonian government also managed to raise hopes in the light of the (General Affairs) Council meeting on enlargement (http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/gac/2018/06/26/) that, this time, we are on the right track to start membership talks (accession negotiations) with the EU. That this time will be different. Maybe it will be. Except, “something is (still) rotten in the state of Denmark”.
Why do Denmark’s concerns (along with France and the Netherlands) on the progress and track record of Macedonia (and other candidate states) in the fight against corruption and public administration reforms actually matter? In terms of EU enlargement to new member states, are Denmark’s cautious views only about a misplaced policy towards the candidate countries (in times of need to stabilise the region), or is it maybe a chance for these countries to turn this ‘missed opportunity’ into their own leverage? Before the country starts negotiations with external bodies, building trust with other EU member states or strengthening its reputation abroad, wouldn’t it be much better to make a long-term investment in re-building citizens’ trust in public institutions, and in one another? It is certainly a win-win situation. It would be beneficial not only for the present (risk management of disputes or conflicts), but much more so – and strategically important – for the future national interest of the country and its reputation.
Denmark is certainly a great example of this practice. Once upon a time, it also had to fight corruption. No country is immune to corruption nowadays either. But the difference is in the level of corruption and its impact on the well-being of the country’s citizens. The difference is in making a choice and establishing a clear strategy on how to implement and evaluate anti-corruption policies, so that it can be regularly improved. Moreover, it is a long-term process rather than a ‘quick fix' solution that demands strong will and dedication to fight corruption, both high and low, in the bureaucratic hierarchy, and always based on impartial justice. Denmark, for example, started after 1660, and the process did not end there. In the 1800s the government advanced these practices by introducing "detailed control of the civil servants' accounts, separation of private and public accountability”:
“[B]y the 1850's salaries had been raised so civil servants had become a part of the well-to-do middle-class guaranteed in the Danish constitution of 1849. This set of legal and administrative reforms in combination with the will of the kings and their top advisors to condemn the misconducts of the civil servants probably made it more worthwhile to work according to the rules and receive a pension than to try to increase income by corrupt means. This contributed most likely to a new – and fairly non-corrupt – overall setting for the Danish administration.” (http://anticorrp.eu/news/the-question-of-how-denmark-got-to-be-denmark-a-historical-pathway-of-fighting-corruption/)
Today, the most impartial public administration in the world is located in Denmark. Every year Denmark receives high scores of around 90, making it one of the most corruption-free countries in the world (https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2017), while Macedonia, as well as other candidate countries, are "stuck" at very low or moderate progress. The EU accession of Bulgaria and Romania had also proven that there is no "quick fix" to this problem, as had the case of Croatia, the last country that joined the EU. Moreover, the lack of close monitoring mechanisms (such as the EU Anti-Corruption report) over Member States’ anti-corruption progress can further push the national corruptive risks into even more darker corners, simply because once the country joins the EU it also receives the EU’s trust that it has enough democratic and institutional capacity to control and repress corruption or wrongdoing. But the former cases also show that this is not always successfully implemented in practice. Moreover, in the case of Croatia, for example, "the accession process has not done what Croatian ordinary people expected” (https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/28-ccwatch/cc-watch-indepth/2030-eu-entry-may-not-change-corruption-in-croatia) in terms of reducing corruption.
So back to the ordinary citizens. Why must any Macedonian government(s) stay sharply and strategically focused on the quality of policy, rather than only politics? Why must policies be conducted with citizens? The quality of governance appears to be the only long-term investment in democracy, stability, sustainable societies and satisfied citizens. Moreover, if not exercised accordingly, it could only play the game of politics and produce evidence-based policies, without evidence. It might work until the next elections, but it will certainly not work in a few years from now, or at the time when it will be expected for Macedonia or any candidate country to show all of its institutional capacities to manage or contribute to more complex regional and supra-national (EU) policies.
Any bias in decision-making (even when deciding on smoke-free law amendments) can motivate other citizens to wrongdoing too. It can inspire other members of Macedonia's State Electoral Commission, or any other institution, to jointly agree to bypass the law or the procedure or the decision-making, regardless of which political party they represent. This has to stop. Today. Otherwise, the roots of integrity are doomed for good. The public officials who hold and use the power to decide on matters of public interest have to plant new trees of integrity if or when the old ones are rotten. They have to start to rebuild institutional and social trust today, so that we can actually safeguard our national identity. Instead, we will become our own shadow.
 The views expressed here are only the author's views and the Research Executive Agency or the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.