BALKAN BLOG: North Macedonia’s Sisyphean struggle for EU membership

BALKAN BLOG: North Macedonia’s Sisyphean struggle for EU membership
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen receives North Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Brussels. / European Commission
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje May 20, 2021

North Macedonia's path to the EU resembles that of Sisyphus’ struggle: every time it seems to have brought the huge stone close to the top of the steep hill it rolls down again and again. Macedonians hope this won’t go on forever.

Or maybe it should be likened to a marathon with an endless number of hurdles. The last hurdle, the veto imposed at the end of 2020 by Bulgaria on the start of EU negotiations with North Macedonia, a candidate country since 2005, came as a big surprise and disappointment, especially because it comes from a country that declares itself to be a great friend and supporter of EU enlargement. But, when it comes to broader political and geostrategic interests, friendship can easily turn into antagonism.

Barely a day has passed since the veto without absurd accusations towards North Macedonia by Bulgarian politicians — many of them eyeing the country’s April general election. The claims include that the country still worships former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, claims of connections with the communist past and allegations of poor treatment of Bulgarians in North Macedonia — who are actually Macedonians who took Bulgarian passports to enable them to work abroad.

The authorities in Skopje come under pressure from Sofia and face accusations of “hate speech” over social media posts by private individuals in North Macedonia who voice criticisms of the Bulgarian position. The Bulgarian foreign ministry even summoned Croatia’s ambassador in Sofia after Croatian President Zoran Milanovic criticised the Bulgarian position.

This dispute comes after two years ago, Macedonia, now North Macedonia, resolved its biggest obstacle to EU accession and one of the most absurd and most delicate diplomatic disputes in Europe in recent decades — the name dispute with Greece — by signing the Prespa agreement, hoping for an open path to the EU and Nato.

Indeed, the country became a fully-fledged Nato member in March 2020, but other obstacles appeared on its EU path in the meantime.

Prior to the shock inflicted by Bulgaria, France held up the enlargement process in 2019 for both North Macedonia and Albania due to its skepticism over their efforts on democracy and fighting corruption. However, after the adoption of the new EU enlargement methodology in March 2020, initiated by France, the EU ministers for European affairs reached political agreement on opening accession talks with both countries.

Thus far, people in North Macedonia are much more concerned about getting a date for their COVID-19 vaccines, due to the prolonged pandemic and the delay in the vaccination rollout, than about a date for EU negotiations. However, problems are piling up and if North Macedonia’s position related to the EU remains the status quo there are fears of stalled reforms and a loss of trust among citizens in EU institutions.

“An additional and continued EU-related stalemate in Macedonian society is likely to result in slowing down of the reform pace and to further polarise the population that largely feels disillusioned by the [European] Union,” Simonida Kacarska, a director of the Skopje-based European Policy Institute (EPI), told bne IntelliNews on May 17.

Another absurd dispute

North Macedonia believed that all issues had been settled and it was about to advance towards EU accession, when Bulgaria used the momentum to push through its policies towards North Macedonia and conditioned its neighbour with demands related to its language and history to open a new bar to its EU accession.

If Greece can condition Macedonia to change its name, why can Bulgaria not condition it with its own terms, was the thinking of Bulgarian nationalist former deputy PM and defence minister Krasimir Karakachanov, whose party failed to enter the parliament in the April election.

For Bulgaria to allow Skopje to launch EU talks, it first wants North Macedonia to accept that the Macedonian language has Bulgarian roots, and that Macedonian nation emerged only after the WWII in 1944 when Macedonia became part of that time Yugoslavia. Other demands include for North Macedonia not to lay claim to the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and changes to its history books to reflect the Bulgarian version of their shared history.

Slovenian think tank IFIMES noted in a September 2020 report that the Serbs and Montenegrins, who are ethnically much more similar regarding the identity and language than the Bulgarians and Macedonians, do not dispute each other's ethnicity, national identity and language. Bulgaria rejected IFIMES comments saying that the institute was close to North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s people.

The demands caused distress in North Macedonia. While Macedonians saw Bulgaria as a friend, which would unequivocally support the country on its EU road, they encountered a blockade, rejection, accusations, conditioning and humiliation that called into question the friendly relations between the two countries.

This has wider implications. The EU integration of all six Western Balkan countries was temporarily halted after in December 2020 Slovakia and the Czech Republic did not approve the conclusions on enlargement for the whole region due to the notion of ‘falsifying history’ inserted in the text as demanded by Bulgaria.

The two countries believe that the EU should not allow Bulgaria to impose its own conditions in the enlargement process regarding its bilateral dispute with North Macedonia, which could lead to further complications.

Following the veto, Skopje was left with half-empty hands, lost hopes, deep disappointment and disbelief among politicians and the public, but also with readiness for new and stronger efforts to overcome the new obstacles.

Politicians believe that the damage done by the Bulgarian veto can be recuperated only with a reasonable, wise and impartial policy, not with emotions.

EU officials have been reiterating their support for North Macedonia to start EU accession talks, but they want the problem with Bulgaria to be solved first. Now, that Bulgaria is governed by an interim government, the question is who will lead the talks with Skopje in the upcoming period for the problem to be solved before the June EU summit.

The Bulgarian elections in April did not bring a new government. After three failed attempts, President Rumen Radev installed a caretaker cabinet led by Stefan Janev until the new snap vote on July 11.

Is this a chance for Skopje to temporarily overcome the obstacle and start EU negotiations during the Portuguese presidency of the EU? The first signals say — not at all.

“The Bulgarian caretaker government that took office in mid-May has already announced that it does not intend to shift the country’s position with respect to the start of the accession negotiations of North Macedonia. As a result, there is almost no likelihood of a solution before the June 2021 EU summit,” Kacarska said.

Bulgarian caretaker Foreign Minister Svetlan Stoev, in his first public appearance last week, said that the country’s framework position on this issue was adopted by consensus by all political parties in the parliament and that the interim government has no authority to change that.

Brussels’ mixed messages

Last week, senior officials from North Macedonia led by Zaev went to Brussels to hold a series of important meetings with officials there to persuade the EU to unblock the country’s EU integration process and to present their positions that the Macedonian identity and language should not be on the table for any discussions with Bulgaria.

“The Macedonian language and the Macedonian identity imposed as issues by Bulgaria must not be a topic of talks. This is the only way for North Macedonia to continue the talks about its European future,” Zaev underlined.

They also sought assurances that North Macedonia and Albania will jointly continue the EU membership process.

The Brussels visit took place after EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi raised the possibility of decoupling Tirana and Skopje if Skopje fails to solve the bilateral issue with Bulgaria, meaning that Albania could be invited to launch EU talks without North Macedonia, which raised concerns in Skopje. Albania was given EU candidate status in 2014 — nine years after Skopje. 

However, senior EU officials are sending mixed messages about the EU enlargement regarding Albania and North Macedonia, the two Balkan countries that so far have been coupled in the process.

If Varhelyi says that decoupling is an option, other EU officials including ministers from Germany and Slovakia insist that Skopje and Tirana should continue on the EU path together.

North Macedonia still hopes that the EU talks can start during the Portuguese presidency, which will end on July 1. These hopes were inflated partly after Zaev met his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week saying that Greece presented some "creative ideas" about the solution of the problem with Bulgaria, without elaborating on possible solutions.

But in case of another ‘no’ from Bulgaria, North Macedonia can only wait for better times, because it has nothing to lose after it accepted the prefix ‘North’ as a burden for future generations.

Snap elections not likely

The opposition in the country did not accept the new name. Opposition politicians even call people close to the ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) ‘Severdjani’, an insulting Macedonian-Turkish term for people from some northern areas, for which there is no appropriate translation in English. 

North Macedonia’s main opposition party, conservative VMRO-DPMNE, says that the country should hold snap elections this or next year. The party is convinced that the country will not start EU accession talks this year, but also cited other reasons for elections, such as a problem with corruption. For the opposition, the upcoming local elections in October are also an opportunity to hold snap general elections.

"There will be early parliamentary elections, the question is whether the government will spend money for separate elections or will hold only one election campaign,” said VMRO-DPMNE deputy head Aleksandar Nikoloski, adding that if not this year, the snap elections will be held in 2022.

However, Zaev rejected such calls, stressing that snap elections would have a negative impact on the economy. Zaev said that all key agreements signed so far — the Prespa agreement and the Treaty with Bulgaria — are related to the economy, jobs, higher GDP and bringing Europe home, so the government should continue working on their implementation.

“The narrow majority in parliament keeps the government awake. I think it is time to keep working to the end of the mandate, so that the next parliamentary elections would be in 2024," Zaev told broadcaster MTV.

EPI’s Kacarska also believes there will be no snap election, at least not in the short term.

“We had snap elections [in July 2020] due to the change in the EU methodology, so I do not expect new early elections in the short-term,” Kacarska told bne IntelliNews, adding that not obtaining a date for EU talks won’t be crucial for snap elections.

“It is different if the government does not maintain a majority in the parliament,” Kacarska noted, implying that this could possibly lead to an early vote but not in the near future.

Moreover, during VMRO-DPMNE’s 11 years in power under now fugitive former PM Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia received seven or eight recommendations to start EU talks, but could not progress due to the unresolved name dispute with Greece. Reforms in all segments stalled in that period.

Trust in EU falls

Following the veto, many people are commenting that the country should not have to pay the price of changing its name only to become part of Nato, and thus to remain vulnerable to other challenges.

“We are disappointed in the EU again and again,” an anonymous Skopje citizen told bne IntelliNews.

Asked about public opinion about EU following the veto, Kacarska said that support for the EU has been falling, even among the ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia, which so far have been great EU supporters.

“Not getting a date will certainly affect also citizens' trust in the EU,” Kacarska added. 

It seems that the problems with EU enlargement are making people not only in North Macedonia but in the entire Western Balkans lose interest in the process.

Last week, Reuters published an internal EU document, which says that the EU must recognise that Balkan countries seeking membership are losing faith in Brussels' long accession strategy, worsened by its initial failure to provide COVID-19 vaccines.

"The widespread perception in the Western Balkans is that the prospect of accession is receding and that European inspirations are lost under a complex set of conditions and procedures," the internal May 5 document drafted by EU officials and sent to EU's 27 foreign ministries said.

The document comments that despite the EU and US pledges for six Western Balkans countries to become EU members, China and Russia are gaining influence in the region, outsmarting the bloc by offering COVID-19 vaccines quickly during the pandemic.

"We need to acknowledge that despite the steadfast commitment to EU integration ... the people in the region are experiencing a sense of deep disappointment in the enlargement process," said the document, according to Reuters.

Last week EU ministers were still unable to break the deadlock about EU enlargement at a meeting in Brussels.

Forward together 

In the meantime, the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia and six Western Balkans countries endorsed a declaration on May 17 urging the EU to speed up the accession process of the entire Western Balkans, as quickly as possible.

“The EU enlargement of the entire Western Balkans is in political, security and economic interests of the Union, and represents a geopolitical necessity and the main political condition for a stable, prosperous and sustainable European future,” said the declaration.

The politicians said that the EU must take a more active approach regarding the Western Balkan enlargement process and encourage countries to meet clearly defined conditions for the EU membership.

What comes next is increased diplomatic activity by the foreign ministry in Skopje for the solution of the dispute with Bulgaria, but it is not clear how the things will develop. As Deputy PM for European Affairs Nikola Dimitrov has said, North Macedonia now represents a great test for the EU’s credibility.