Europe Must Speak with One Voice on North Macedonia

Ivan Nikolovski

Originally published by Balkan Insight

May 31, 2019

North Macedonia has lived through some turbulent political changes both domestically and internationally over the last decade.

It has gone from a largely isolated, captured state with troubled relations with its neighbors to a country committed to unblocking its Euro-Atlantic integration at any cost and a bright example of what Europe means after agreeing to change its constitutional name in order to settle decades of a dispute with Greece.

But even after overcoming the main obstacle on its Euro-Atlantic path by signing the Prespa Agreement with Greece, North Macedonia’s accession to the EU remains in question.

The main reason for this uncertainty is the mixed signals from the European Commission and EU member states regarding the start of the accession negotiations.

On the one hand, the Commission and Germany support the opening of the accession talks, while on the other France is opposed. At the same time, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris all have their own strategies for the EU perspective of the Western Balkans, but with different end goals or lack thereof.

The absence of synergy between these strategies may reverse the reform process, halt regional cooperation and increase Euroscepticism among the Macedonian citizens.

If the EU closes its doors to North Macedonia, the country may also fall under the increased influence of the other powers present in the region, such as Russia, China, and Turkey.  

‘Credible enlargement perspective’

It was no secret that besides the name dispute with Greece, Skopje had to convince the bloc of its readiness for accession talks by improving the situation with regards rule of law and reinforcing the fight against corruption and organized crime.

This became an absolute condition for the start of the accession negotiations in 2016 when the European Commission characterized the situation in North Macedonia as one of state capture.

This definition followed the findings of the so-called Priebe Group which cited “significant shortcomings”, such as illegal interception of communications, political interference in the judiciary, lack of division of powers, and electoral fraud deriving from the 2015 wiretapping scandal revealed by the then Macedonian opposition.

The new reformist government led by Zoran Zaev, which came to power in May 2017, was expected to act upon the conditions set by the European Commission.

Therefore, Zaev’s government immediately introduced a package of reforms in the areas of judiciary, public service, and intelligence services. This reform package – known as the 3-6-9 Plan – included recommendations from both the 2015 Priebe report and the European Commission’s urgent reform priorities.

Parallel to the reform agenda, the Macedonian government focused almost exclusively on resolving open issues with the country’s neighbours in order to unblock and accelerate Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

As a result, North Macedonia signed historic treaties with Bulgaria and Greece, ensuring that the two neighbors would not veto its EU and NATO accession in the future.  

In the final months of the renewed and intensified talks with Greece over the name, the European Commission provided North Macedonia and the other Western Balkan countries with a credible enlargement perspective.

This offered Skopje the possibility of becoming a full member if it resolves its bilateral disputes with its neighbours, fulfills the necessary membership criteria and delivers tangible results in their implementation.

Furthermore, within this enlargement strategy, the European Commission envisioned financial assistance to North Macedonia and the rest of the region to meet the membership conditions.

During the referendum campaign on the Prespa Agreement, Brussels made its presence felt with official visits to the country and media statements supporting the name deal by playing the ‘accession talks’ card.

After the name deal with Greece was finally adopted and entered into force, the Commission proposed the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and said the country had made a “great reform effort” as well.

Crucial German support

It was in that context that, at the Vienna Economic Talks in May 2019, the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said “if we [the EU] fail to reward the historic Prespa agreement and the great reform effort of North Macedonia we [the EU] will make great damage to the power of attraction the EU has over its neighbors and the Western Balkan in particular”.

He concluded that opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia is a matter of the EU’s self-interest too.

Skopje’s EU accession found support among some EU member states as well.

Perhaps the most important support is that of Germany. Berlin’s presence in the Western Balkans region, including North Macedonia, has significantly increased since 2014 when the then newly-elected President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, announced that there would be no new enlargement of the Union during his mandate.

In response, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, launched a political initiative popularly known as the Berlin Process with the aim of reinforcing regional cooperation between the countries of the Western Balkans but also assisting their integration into the EU.

Under the auspices of the Berlin Process, the German Government promised its support for the EU integration of the region, offering all of the Western Balkan countries an opportunity to join the EU if they meet the accession conditions. Moreover, Germany stated its own responsibility for helping the Western Balkans build a peaceful, stable and democratic future based on the rule of law.

Following its change of government, North Macedonia received Germany’s encouragement and support for its efforts to close the name dispute with Greece.

During the referendum campaign, many high-ranking German diplomats and officials visited Skopje and called on voters to support the name deal. A couple of weeks before the referendum, on September 8, 2018, Merkel herself paid an historic visit to Skopje and called the Macedonian citizens to approve the name deal by stressing that “the future [for North Macedonia] could be, with a successful outcome of the referendum, that you are both a member of NATO as well as belonging to the family of EU states”.

After the approval of the Prespa Agreement by the Greek parliament, the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, restated Germany’s support, saying that the name resolution “clears the way for the Republic of North Macedonia’s accession to NATO and for the opening of accession talks with the EU”.

French ‘bad cop’

Other EU member states, such as France, however, neither believe that the Prespa Agreement is enough to merit accession talks with Skopje nor are convinced that the reform agenda has been sufficiently implemented.

Despite not being particularly interested in the Western Balkans since the end of the 1998-99 Kosovo war, Paris has played the role of “bad cop” when it comes to the region’s EU integration, including that of North Macedonia.

In fact, France’s skepticism toward future enlargement of the Union should come as no surprise.

During a speech at Sorbonne on September 29, 2017, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, unveiled his plan for Europe, in which the internal reforms of the Union were singled out as a priority for France before any new enlargement takes place.

Unlike his counterparts in Brussels and Berlin, Macron supported the Prespa Agreement but without any implicit or explicit reference to EU membership for North Macedonia as an end goal.

What is more, his administration made it clear that its adoption was not enough for Paris to give the green light to accession talks and that France expects from North Macedonia to deliver reforms in the key areas concerning the acquis communautaire.

During her visit to Skopje in February 2019, Nathalie Liseau, the former Minister for European Affairs and a top candidate of Macron’s La République En Marche electoral list in the 2019 European elections, called for full compliance with the rule of law and for the continuation of reforms.

France’s rhetoric on Western Balkans EU enlargement sharpened on the eve of the 2019 elections for the European Parliament.

In an interview given in May 2019, Liseau said that the “accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania will not start in June 2019 and there should be no dilemma on this matter”. According to her, Skopje and Tirana belong to Europe and they need the EU’s help but not through enlargement.

Even though playing the role of hardliner might be part of France’s pre-election position aimed at calming down or appealing to the Eurosceptic voters, such statements are indeed discouraging for the region’s EU path.

At the same time, at the Berlin Summit in May 2019, Macron published France’s strategy for the Western Balkans. In terms of content and financial support, this strategy is very similar and complements the European Commission’s credible enlargement perspective and the Berlin Process initiative. Besides France’s political revival in the region, the strategy’s aim is rather vague as it does not provide any clarity on the region’s EU integration, especially in the context of the announced blockade.

Old ghosts

The lack of harmony between strategies and the absence of a unanimous stance on the European integration of North Macedonia may weaken the EU’s credibility among the generally pro-EU citizens.

Despite the fact that the reform agenda has not been sufficiently implemented, keeping Skopje in the eternal waiting room risks its reversal. In other words, political elites would be discouraged from delivering results if adequate feedback is missing.

In fact, the isolation of North Macedonia has already proven a mistake.

The authoritarian and nationalist ghosts of the past may easily reawaken, while other external actors such as Moscow would not hesitate to interfere in the country’s domestic politics.

The EU’s closed doors may also decelerate implementation of the Prespa Agreement since one of the international community’s main arguments for its adoption was precisely the start of accession talks.

This would also endanger the resolution of the remaining bilateral issues in the region, such as relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

The accession talks can last a long time and the EU member states have powerful tools to punish Skopje’s eventual lack of harmonization with the acquis communautaire.

At the end of the day, accession negotiations do not equate to membership. Hence, the EU’s most viable option to preserve the country’s stability, ensure the reform agenda’s implementation and sustainability as well as to fulfill its enlargement strategies is to open accession talks with North Macedonia.