By Zoran Nechev and Ivan Nikolovski | Skopje
In February 2018, the European Commission published its communiqué ‘A Credible Enlargement Perspective for and Enhanced EU Engagement with the Western Balkans’. The document offered an incentive to the countries of the region, especially to those that are already in the negotiation process such as Montenegro and Serbia.
It also offered a long-term vision for those countries wanting to join the EU by emphasising the rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy, the digital market and reconciliation. However, since its publishing, no significant breakthrough in any of the six policy areas (flagship initiatives) has been achieved.
Nevertheless, continuity has been sustained with the new Commission. In the political guidelines laid down by the president-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the European perspective for the region is reaffirmed, while at the same time supporting a concrete proposal for further illuminating the European path of Albania and North Macedonia.
However, while we wait to see how these guidelines are further implemented, the European Council missed the chance to prove that it is serious toward its partners and failed to reach a ‘clear and substantive decision’ on opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia at its October 2019 meeting. By doing so, the EU put at risk its credibility in the region and provided a space for the EU-sceptics’ claims that the EU is not interested in the process of integrating the Western Balkans.
Positive anxiety in Skopje before the EU decision – or lack thereof
A decade has passed since the European Commission adopted its first recommendation to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia. The main reason why the country retained this status in the accession process for such a long time was the dispute with Greece over the usage of North Macedonia’s constitutional name, at that time the Republic of Macedonia.
In the light of the new developments – such as the Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation with Bulgaria and the signing of the Prespa agreement on the name issue with Greece, as well as the initiation of the process of dismantling the state capture as assessed in the Commission’s country report – in 2018 the government in Skopje had a realistic hope, for the first time since 2009, of expecting advancement to the next phase and initiating accession negotiation with the EU.
The government expectations were not met, although the Council did set out a path towards opening accession negotiations in June 2019. The impetus provided by the Council was conditioned by the Macedonian government’s continued efforts in the reform processes and the ratification of the agreement with Greece.
This decision did not discourage the government in Skopje from concluding the agreement; however, it gave a serious blow to the process and the two countries’ publics (especially in Skopje) lost confidence in whether the name change was worth it. This attitude, especially from some sceptical countries, has seriously jeopardised the reconciliation process, which rarely happens in this part of Europe.
Furthermore, what appeared to be a sustained position from some of the sceptical countries toward granting accession negotiations to North Macedonia, was actually the politicisation of EU accession policy, that is, a means for these parties to better position themselves for their domestic electorates before the 2019 European elections.
An illustration that the accession process is increasingly being viewed through the lenses of member states’ domestic considerations is France’s political debate before the elections. The tactics to win the electorate by using the ‘no further enlargement’ narrative proved to be a very weak selling point for the domestic audience as the Renaissance list of La République En Marche! won the same number of MEPs as the Rassemblement National.
Due to fear that a populist outcry would bring about negative public opinion and the subsequent politicisation of the Council’s eventual positive decision, the publication of the country reports assessing the achievement made by candidate countries in the preceding year was moved from April 2019 (when it was originally planned) to the May following the European elections.
This action significantly shortened the time necessary for some member states such as Germany to push the decision through their national parliaments. Thus, the decision to open accession negotiations for North Macedonia (and Albania) was postponed from June’s Council meeting to October, in contrast to its own decision to ‘set out the path towards opening accession negotiations in June 2019’.
The ‘us’ (the EU) and ‘them’ (the Western Balkans) story should be avoided at all costs, as it does not bring benefit to any of the parties. The EU’s internal challenges cannot become the key criteria for further enlargement-related decisions, especially as the current candidate countries are far from actual accession.
Alternatively, if we put this into accession terminology, it cannot be more about the ‘Union’s capacity to absorb new members’ instead of the accession countries’ capacities to deliver on the Copenhagen criteria. We share the same values and vision for a United Europe. A recent case that had a negative effect on the operation and unity of the Union, the management of the migrant crisis, shows that the countries of the Western Balkans are in the same pot with the EU member states as they felt the benefits and consequences of EU policies.
Nevertheless, some examples of the nationalisation of accession policy can prove beneficial. For one, the Western Balkan summits (the Berlin process) have facilitated and enhanced the accession process in some areas such as connectivity, reconciliation, bilateral issues and youth cooperation; however, at the same time, it resulted in increased integration with other Western Balkan countries regardless of their current status in the accession process.
The benefit of the process is that it functions on the basis of a rotating presidency among the countries involved (EU member states and Western Balkan countries). This represents a unique opportunity, especially for different EU member states to assist their Western Balkan counterparts’ EU integration with a focus on specific policy areas, while at the same time fulfilling their domestic agenda when it comes to enlargement.
So far, the Berlin process has been hosted by Germany, Austria, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Poland, while in 2020 it will be co-presided for the first time by an EU member state from the region (Bulgaria) and a Western Balkan country (North Macedonia).
Another example of the ‘positive nationalisation’ of the accession policy is when the domestic agenda of the EU member states fully complements the Copenhagen criteria. For instance, the Netherlands puts great emphasis on respect for the rule of law, human rights and gender equality, in its foreign policy in general and in the relations with the region in particular. This is operationalised through the many grants provided by the Netherlands aimed at assisting the work of the region’s public institutions and civil society organisations in improving standards and policies in these fields.
The new challenges
The 2019 Commission’s report on North Macedonia reveals that progress has been made; however, it is not irreversible. A positive outcome of the October 2019 European Council Summit would have rewarded the country for the efforts it has made in dismantling the state capture and its leadership in bringing forward the agreements with Bulgaria and Greece that contributed to peace and reconciliation in the SEE.
Furthermore, opening accession negotiations would have: 1) enabled the country to continue on the path to implementing both agreements; 2) secured the implementation of domestic EU-related reforms that would profoundly transform the country; 3) provided long-term stability for the country along inter- and intra-ethnic lines, which is profoundly important as the settlement of the naming dispute has had a damaging effect on the internal cohesion of Macedonian society, predominantly among the ethnic Macedonian population, has significantly divided public opinion, and has raised a number of identity-related issues.
However, the only conclusion that the member-states could reach consensus on during the European Council’s October 2019 meeting was that “the European Council will revert to the issue of enlargement before the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May 2020”.
Hence, the Council’s decision not to grant accession negotiations to North Macedonia (and Albania) has the potential to seriously divert the country’s and region’s EU perspective. Therefore, the greatest challenge for the country is to remain on the EU track of internal reforms and external reconciliation In a context in which the trust between the partners in this process is seriously damaged.
Regardless of the European Council October 2019 conclusions, Skopje, Sofia, and Athens should continue cultivating their good neighbourliness.
Furthermore, France’s insistence on deepening before widening could backfire; and in the case of North Macedonia the first ‘warning sign’ is the snap elections scheduled for April 12, 2020. The pre-election period as well as the elections’ outcome may overshadow the reform process and could halt progress vis-à-vis bilateral relations with Bulgaria and Greece.
Regardless of the European Council October 2019 conclusions, Skopje, Sofia, and Athens should continue cultivating their good neighbourliness. This especially applies to the work of the inter-governmental committees that cover the most sensitive parts of both agreements, that is, national history and identity.
The governments in the three countries should prevent any attempt to politicise these committees’ work, and should motivate the experts from all sides to solve the disputed issues in a professional and scientific manner. Moreover, the authorities in North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece should refrain from using provocative and inflammatory language or blackmailing that may heat up public debate and impede the implementation of the agreements.
However, the absence of accession negotiations may provide a fertile ground for increased tensions, such as the quarrel over the work of the Macedonian-Bulgarian committee, issues deriving from the recently adopted Bulgarian framework position on EU accession of North Macedonia and Albania, the possible trademark-based disagreements over the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ with Greece or the eventual suspension of the new constitutional name for internal use by North Macedonia.
ZORAN NECHEV is a senior researcher and head of the Centre for European Integration within the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” – Skopje. His fields of academic and professional interest are EU enlargement,
Europeanisation, policy of conditionality, Western Balkans, justice and home affairs.
IVAN NIKOLOVSKI is a researcher and project assistant at the Centre for European Integration within Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” – Skopje. His fields of academic and professional interests include EU integration, international affairs, divided societies and social movements.
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Bulgaria conditioned North Macedonia’s progress in the accession negotiations on the removal of the reference to “Macedonian language” in all EU official documents, removal of the adjective “fascist Bulgarian occupier” related to WWII Kingdom of Bulgaria’s occupation of the territory of “Vardar Macedonia” (then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and implementation of other policies, which were seen as controversial by the public in the country. More is available at Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria. Рамкова позиция относно разширяване на ЕС и процеса на стабилизиране и асоцииране: Република Северна Македония и Албания, 09 October 2019. http://government.bg/bg/prestsentar/novini/ramkova-pozitsia?fbclid=IwAR3fM9Jx3HIlaSibLN8pcS9gTUdNTnqdO_ziFhSnBKOICsIZfU9Ahs5n-9Y
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