A decisive “No” by the French president Emmanuel Macron to opening EU accession negotiations of North Macedonia has echoed throughout the European Union and the Western Balkans.
While speaking in front of 28 member states’ representatives at the Brussels summit on October 17, Macron opposed the opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, voicing the need for reform of the accession process itself, and for a focus on the internal problems facing the EU, before further enlargement. Only Denmark and the Netherlands supported Macron’s No.
Some of the politicians in the EU, as well as many North Macedonians, were surprised by Macron’s decisiveness which came almost without warning after both countries have gone through years of painful reforms. Others fear it could be an announcement of the termination of enlargement.
For the Balkans, this development has led to reduced hopes and optimism, with various leaders and analysts throughout the region expressing concern about what this means for the European futures of other states.
Guesswork and reality
The immediate consequences of France’s decision have been felt by North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who only a few days prior to the summit had given euphoric statements, encouraging optimism in the public with a wide smile. By doing so, he created a positive atmosphere and ignited the hope that the EU doors were going to open wide, and that it was only a matter of time for this to be official.
A day after the summit, Zaev was no longer the same man.
In Skopje, immediately after the French veto was made public, speculation about the possible resignation of Zaev began to flourish. He soon decided to call for new elections, and announced that he will stay in his cabinet until a technical government is formed, that will lead the country until the next elections.
In his surroundings, but also in some EU capitals, his decision has been rejected as unacceptable. Bulgarian Prime Minister Bojko Borisov, who has been unofficially viewed in Macedonian media as being politically close to Zaev, has stated that he cannot resign. “A lot has to be done for the future of the country,” he reminded Zaev.
“Macron’s move is unacceptable for both us and most European leaders, which leads us to think about stuff that might be conspiratory,” Ismet Ramadani, analyst and Zaev’s advisor says. “However, we should respect his position. He probably reacted in this manner due to internal issues.”
In the last 11 years, Macedonia has been receiving instructions and clear messages that its European and Atlantic integration are impossible without a deal with Greece.
After the name change, from the Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia, a move that came after many negotiations and with a lot of compromises within the country, his expectations, as well as those of many citizens, was that the next step toward the EU would be inevitable.
The French veto came as a reminder of the 2008 episode, when Greece rejected Macedonian membership in NATO, with a condition to change Macedonia’s name. In the last 11 years, Macedonia has received instructions and clear messages that its European and Atlantic integration are impossible without a deal with Greece.
The road of change has been tiring, with occasional admixtures of humiliation at the expense of the citizens. The green light to change the country’s name required a two-thirds vote in Parliament, while the key was in the hands of VMRO-DPMNE, the party that held power in North Macedonia for decades, but are currently a key opposition party after their fall from power in 2017.
Their rule ended in June 2017 when the Prosecution filed charges against 94 party officials, including long time Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, following the explosive scandal of wiretapping, corruption and murder cover-up. Some of the indicted officials were blamed for the incident on April 27, 2017, when elements of the VMRO-DPMNE allegedly facilitated a physical attack on Parliament by protesters opposed to the new majority of Zaev’s social-democrats and the Albanian parties.
Gruevski, sentenced to two years in prison for misuse of power, would later escape to Hungary, where he received asylum.
This came after years of protests in the streets and the 2016 Przhino agreement reached between political parties and EU and U.S. representatives, aiming to stabilize the country after those events.
After this, in 2018, came the Prespa Agreement signed between North Macedonia and Greece, which set the stage for the name change but also required reforms to be implemented by the new social-democratic government of Zoran Zaev.
After reaching an agreement formally solving the issue of the country’s name, it was expected that the North Macedonian flag would quickly rise to an equal footing with that of other NATO members.
However, despite the painful struggles that the people of North Macedonia have undergone and the reforms that have been achieved, France said no — a move that has been followed by many questions and much speculation.
Some see the new approach and enlargement methodology proposed at the start of October by France as a sort of announcement. Back then, Macron sent a letter to EU member states, asking them to make the enlargement process more rigid. Among other things, this means a change in methodology for the implementation of negotiations, including the possibility of retrograding the negotiations if a country doesn’t demonstrate concrete improvements. A particular accent is put on the rule of law.
This new approach has been announced by the French as an official stance they will insist on, putting North Macedonia and Albania in a less favorable position in comparison to other countries, such as Serbia and Montenegro, which are already in the process of negotiations.
But this idea is not rejected in North Macedonia. President Stevo Pendarovski accepts it wholeheartedly, saying that Skopje is not questioning the new approach. On the contrary, he says, this is seen as an acquired value and additional quality that would facilitate the negotiation framework.
“As for the French suggestion to change the methodology, we applaud it because we believe that it has provided new quality elements to the negotiations and that North Macedonia is ready to fully respond to the possible new requests on future negotiations for a fully fledged membership in the EU,” Pendarovski says.
He has already announced this to the Macedonian public and it must surely have echoed in Macron’s cabinet.
However, some other motives behind France’s disruption are being discussed as well.
“We, as a state aspiring to EU membership, should carry on moving the European road, because one day Macron’s attitude will change.”
A concealed motive, as some are calling it in the media, is that Macron is furious due to the European Parliament denying his candidate Sylvie Goulard a post in the European Commission, namely the position of the Commissioner for the Internal Market.
Media are speculating that Macron’s attitude is actually a kind of revenge, and that his blockade of North Macedonia and Albania has put him in the position of the negotiator and given him a sense of victory, at least for a glimpse.
Zaev’s analyst, Ramadani, rejects such conspiracy theories. He invokes rationality and reflects on future Macedonian moves, with an accent on reforms, instead of wasting time on lamentation and mystery-solving regarding why this has happened and what North Macedonia has done to deserve it.
“We, as a state aspiring to EU membership, should carry on moving along the European road, because one day Macron’s attitude will change,” he says. “The EU might reform and then he won’t be able to use his veto power,” Ramadani hopes, adding that the authorities shouldn’t halt reforms, because they are favorable for citizens. “These are EU values, which should also become our values.”
Western diplomats are afraid that the new situation could turn North Macedonia, as well as the region, away from the EU and toward Russia.
Speaking recently to the Financial Times, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić warned that keeping the door closed for North Macedonia and Albania has left the region “realising that it cannot rely on its Western neighbors alone.”
“The EU was formed as a response to fascism, but is now running scared in the face of populists and fascism,” Kosovo’s prospective prime minister, Albin Kurti, told the Guardian in response to the decision.
Regional expert Florian Bieber writes that “as the government of North Macedonia have painfully discovered, taking a difficult and unpopular plunge into settling a decade old dispute, offers no rewards from the EU.”
He predicts that this unpredictability from the EU will discourage much needed reforms and steps toward reconciliation in the region, weakening the Union’s role — amongst other things — in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
For now, leaders in Skopje are denying any other path but that of the EU. President Pendarovski, who was the first politician to address the public after the French refusal, rejected all possible fears and scenarios other than the European perspective for the country.
To prove this, he called a meeting of the leaders of parties in parliament to express their views on the future. After the meeting, Pendarovski emphasized that North Macedonia belongs to the European Union “exclusively.”
“Euro-Atlantic integration of the country doesn’t have an alternative,” he says, adding that it was a stance confirmed by all the leaders of parties in parliament.
“After the unfavorable conclusions of the European Council last week, North Macedonia is facing a great challenge,” he says. “However, although discussions can be had on alternative projects, I think there is no room for those, but only for a fully fledged EU membership.”
Nobody is willing to give a prediction on the distant future, but what will come soon, on April 12, 2020, are snap elections. The date was set during a leaders’ meeting summoned by Pendarovski.
The formation of a technical government was also agreed upon, in accordance with the 2015 Pržine Agreement, which obliges four largest political parties to cooperate in the achievement of reforms.
The call for elections has brought about much criticism and attacks directed at Zaev. The key argument against is the fact that North Macedonia has some sort of election or vote every year. Hence, despite the 2019 presidential elections, the snap election will be held in 2020. Previously, in 2018, the referendum on the name change was held, while 2017 and 2016 saw local and general elections, respectively.
Ramadani doesn’t agree with the criticism, and says that the suggestion to hold elections constitutes a moral act.
For VMRO-DPMNE, this situation is a new chance to take over the government once again.
“It is a fact that the heads of influential countries, as well as those from the EU, have stated many times that they were almost certain that we would get the date [of negotiations], while in the end the opposite had happened,” he says. “Zaev is now sympathizing with the citizens, while the new elections represent a message to both them and the leaders.”
Ramadani thinks that without these elections, the opposition could organize protests that could eventually be utilized by anti-European forces.
“The state cannot carry on with this turbulent era,” he says. “Therefore, the elections will be held in a stable, peaceful atmosphere, which is important after the tense years that we have left behind.”
For VMRO-DPMNE, this situation is a new chance to take over the government once again. The head of the party, Hristijan Mickovski, has announced that they are expecting to win.
But Zaev expects the same.
What is certain is that over the next few months, a tense campaign, which might be focused on the name change — again — is ahead. This can be suspected from the statement by former Minister of Interior Antonio Milosevski, to the FAZ German daily, that VMRO-DPMNE is considering the restoration of the constitutional name if they come to power.
“There are ways to return to the state its old constitutional name of ‘Macedonia,’” he says, admitting that these ways would be quite complex.
“One option would be that our Constitutional Court declares the agreement with Greece null and void,” he says. “This could be done on the basis of last year’s referendum, where there was no majority for the abolishment of the old name.”
Milosevski believes that there are MPs in parliament who “only voted against the name change under pressure, threats and extortion, and thus against their own will.”
The harm caused in Brussels by closing this door may lead to complications and ultimately prove to be dangerous, he insists.
Whatever may be the actual reasons behind France’s veto, it does not play in the favor of the EU, which as a result is somewhat discredited and weakened in its influence. If the Western Balkans ultimately turns toward Russia or China, as Vučić warns or, as Florian Bieber predicts, becomes “a new Casablanca, a place where people are passing through, trying to leave, but remaining stuck,” where different powers compete for influence and money and power rule — the EU can blame itself.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0