Perspectives | North Macedonia

North Macedonia and the EU

By - 04.08.2022

Cloudy with a chance of sunshine.

On July 19, 2022 North Macedonia held its first intergovernmental session with the European Union (EU) alongside Albania. Unlike Albania, which formally started accession negotiations, North Macedonia only started the process to access negotiations. Hailed as a historic moment by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the opening of the accession process came after a week of turmoil between North Macedonia and EU member state Bulgaria. For a moment, the situation in Skopje was so tense that there was doubt as to whether accession negotiations would be able to start. 

Despite this well-earned, long-expected process having (kind of) begun, I haven’t gotten out  the champagne yet. Why has the fulfillment of this long-awaited hope not provided me with the satisfaction I expected? 

Perhaps it’s because we’ve repeatedly gotten our hopes up only for them to be crushed. We’ve learned that the enlargement process appears to have changed in the last few years and can now be halted at any moment, seemingly for any reason. At the same time, being outside the EU is feeling more precarious than ever.

This feeling has become stronger in North Macedonia in the past few months and especially so in the last couple weeks when the country’s institutions were faced with the French proposal to resolve Bulgaria’s stubborn blocking of North Macedonia’s EU path. The proposal suggests changes to North Macedonia’s constitution that many in the country see as an inappropriate intervention by Bulgaria in North Macedonia’s internal affairs.

Bilateral or multilateral? 

The dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia forces us to question who North Macedonia is even dealing with. Is it the EU? Bulgaria? France? 

The EU integration process has traditionally been about a relationship centered on conditionality between the candidate country and the EU, the institution representing its member states. However, since the 2019 French veto of North Macedonia’s EU path and the subsequent French-led changes to the EU enlargement process, followed by the Bulgarian veto, the integration relationship is no longer so clear; single member states can now elevate their domestic or bilateral disputes or reservations as part of the accession process.

The waters were further muddied by allegations that many EU member states had not seen or been consulted on the French proposal. Nevertheless, von der Leyen gave a speech on July 14 where she expressed her frustration with the Bulgarian veto and urged the EU parliament to support the proposal and open the path for accession negotiations.

Even after the signing of a bilateral protocol between Bulgaria and North Macedonia on July 17, Bulgaria can still block North Macedonia’s accession process if the Macedonians do not add mention of a Bulgarian minority to the Macedonian constitution. Such a constitutional change would require a two thirds parliamentary majority, and North Macedonia’s largest opposition party has promised to oppose the measure.

This new accession conundrum has done serious damage to the legitimacy of the EU integration process and will make achieving necessary reforms — and in the case of North Macedonia, sacrifices — even harder. 

How can difficult reforms happen when citizens of North Macedonia keep being slapped with veto after veto? At this point, the vetoes no longer feel like vetoes directed at the country, but at the people. After all, North Macedonia changed its name and implemented the reform benchmarks it was meant to. What more can we do to get to the accession table? When will it be enough?

These questions have created a dangerously politically polarized situation in North Macedonia. While changing the country’s name was a painful pill to swallow, many progressives believed that it was worth it as long as North Macedonia could advance on its path towards the EU and normalize its relationship with Greece.

What makes the domestic debate different this time around is that even progressives in the country were against the French proposal. While their arguments are not the same as those of nationalist forces which have hinged on fear mongering over the loss of Macedonian identity, progressive critics have focused on the issue of fairness, as well as the lack of transparency, the evident imbalance of power between the two countries, as well as the EU’s refusal to give guarantees about accession.

The debate between those who supported the passing of the proposal and those who do not is fraught. On July 15, members of parliament hurled insults at each other from the podium and when the ruling party was speaking, they had to shout over the vuvuzelas of the opposition. This is not what a democracy should look like. 

Political histories

The political dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia has taken a new form, despite its supposedly “ancient roots.” It all rests on a contestation of North Macedonia’s history, particularly the way the Bulgarian occupation during World War Two is taught in schools, the status of the Macedonian language and the issue of Bulgarian minorities in North Macedonia, which until recently has been a non-issue.

The Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia’s EU path specifically cited unsubstantiated claims of discrimination against Bulgarians in North Macedonia and the lack of progress of the history commission that was supposed to resolve bilateral issues.

Macedonians have faced vetoes before. The first was from Greece, which was resolved with the 2019 Prespa Agreement which had Macedonia change its name to North Macedonia. Then came France’s veto. It’s for this reason that the Bulgarian veto of 2020, the third one in a short period, was an especially hard pill to swallow. While the Greek veto was expected, the result of a dispute plaguing the country since its independence in the early 1990s, Bulgaria didn’t appear poised to block Macedonians’ EU path.

Despite some ongoing tensions between the two countries on issues of history and identity, Bulgaria had in the past been a strong supporter of North Macedonia joining the EU. Now instead they are trying to force Macedonians to rewrite their official history.

While North Macedonia should revise the way it teaches and researches history, this should be a result of domestic reflections and changes, rather than an imposition from outside. Though these steps are still in their infancy in North Macedonia, the country has made impressive progress in dealing with its past politically.

For instance, the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended the incipient inter-ethnic conflict in 2001 between the country’s Albanian non-majority community and the Macedonian state, was cited in the preamble of the constitution as a pillar of state-building when the changes were made following the Prespa Agreement. Young academics and historians have also sought to change the narratives of the past, albeit slowly, given that these changes have not been reflected in textbook content.

Rather than helping North Macedonia confront its past, Bulgaria’s demands are leading to regressive politics because it makes some Macedonians feel their identity and state are under threat. 

The nationalist narrative about North Macedonia and Bulgaria sometimes also takes a concerning anti-Albanian tone. This was particularly clear after the proposal was up for a vote in parliament, where all the Albanian representatives voted in favor. But the public debate is also counterproductive in terms of addressing the communist past. Though some degree of Yugonostalgia is widespread in North Macedonia, many ethnic, social and political groups suffered greatly under the Yugoslav system, a type of suffering that is not often publicly recognized or discussed.

Citizens and the institutions of North Macedonia need to be discussing these issues, but it’s not a discussion they should have with Bulgaria, but with themselves.

The involvement of the EU in these identity questions has undermined the legitimacy of the whole process, and the new accession path offers little hope. What is to guarantee that nationalist sentiments and policies do not hijack the process again, and again, and again? We, EU hopefuls, are weary because despite the EU’s earlier position that bilateral issues should not be part of the negotiation process, the French proposal formalized the Bulgarian position into the negotiating framework for the country, thus putting North Macedonia on an insecure footing. 

The public discussion in North Macedonia over the past months has been primarily debates about history, identity and betrayal, as opposed to substantive discussion about the economic and social challenges our country faces. It has been disappointing to say the least, and the EU is largely responsible. 

The disappointment of Europhiles

At this point, Europeanization as we know it seems to be breathing its last breath. It’s not that we will stop aspiring to join the EU, or that accession will lose its transformative power, but it is a significantly different process now from the one that the Central and Eastern European countries and other Balkan countries, such as Bulgaria, had to follow. 

Those who stand to lose the most from these changes are progressive governments. North Macedonia’s current government, a staunch supporter of EU accession, already bears the weight of the name change on its shoulders. With the passing of the French proposal, they also have to carry the burden of having made what many citizens see as heavy concessions to Bulgaria. If they end up losing the next election to the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party as a result, it would signal a major setback on the path to the EU.

Although the start of the opening of accession negotiations was secured, there was little celebration, perhaps indicating that even the government is uneasy with how things have gone. Perhaps I had an overly romanticized version of what a step forward in the accession path would look like. After 17 years waiting at the doorstep, I thought at least a collective sigh of relief would have been justified. 

But there was no collective sigh. Instead we feel destabilized by the withering legitimacy and transparency of the EU accession process, and concerned for the implications this could have for North Macedonia and its neighbors. The fact that North Macedonia, even after fulfilling all the conditions and changing its name, still doesn’t have a clear accession path means that other difficult reforms or changes in the region, such as Serbia accepting Kosovo’s statehood, will likely be harder to achieve.

In North Macedonia we are forced to constantly reassert our Europeanness while being pressured into deals that are counter to the European principles of democracy and transparency. This has created a crisis of identity for Europhiles in the region, and it is the EU that is at fault. The champagne will have to wait. 

Feature image: Wikimedia via CC.

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