Top European Union officials described France’s veto against the opening of EU accession talks with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania, as a historical mistake.
Many think the French President might have brought EU's decade long strategy towards the Balkans crashing down.
Euronews spoke with the prime minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev, who ended up paying the price and called for snap elections.
To watch the full interview please click on the player above.
Efi Koutsokosta, Euronews: Prime Minister many thanks for being with us. Do you consider the EU rejection as a personal defeat? Do you feel betrayed?
Zoran Zaev, Prime Minister of North Macedonia: ”Yes of course. Why? Because all of us, countries of Western Balkans, have an EU integration agenda but in my country, a lot of positive things happened. And we are a very rare positive example in bilateral issues here in the region."
Agreement with Greece
"The agreement with Greece is a rare kind of agreement. This kind of agreement is present from the past only after wars when the politicians sit and make agreements. We changed our name, we changed our constitution, we got the majority in a process of 120 days - (a) very painful process because there were a lot of threats from the nationalists and radicals in our country and after that, the message was "ok you are ready but now we are not ready." Really, we can wait but it's a big disappointment for us," added Zaev.
Efi Koutsokosta: "You mentioned before the Prespa agreement as a breakthrough for your country but also Greece but now with the snap elections ahead, and given that the opposition already attacks against the agreement, do you think that the agreement is actually at risk?
Zoran Zaev- Prime Minister of North Macedonia: "Yes. Especially part of the greek agreement, Prespa Agreement, there is an implementation of the agreement in connection with the opening and closing of chapters, especially the internal use of some aspects. That is connected because our Greek friends accepted that yes we can do it, because of the European Union future of North Macedonia. And that way there is no possibility of how to implement Prespa Agreement."
Changes have been huge
"Prespa Agreement achievement until now has been huge, we changed everything in the country. We changed all boards in the public institutions, monuments, boards with all our neighbours in the airports, documentation, websites, everything. And now we are in the process of changing our books in our schools because it's constitutional name now."
Efi Koutsokosta: "So you say that all this effort could be frozen or stopped."
Zoran Zaev- Prime Minister of North Macedonia: "Part of it will be frozen because it's not really possible. We'll try to implement something but it's really connected because of the transformation process of the chapters means opening our sovereignty to give it to the European Union. Through these chapters, there is changing of documentation, internal communication between, and I use this example, municipalities for example. When they communicate with a letter between the one municipality to the other, one municipality to one institution, they communicate with the Republic of North Macedonia, this change can happen to the chapters for example or some other aspects, it's really connected to the chapters. So, I believe we can continue with all implementation of Prespa Agreement but these chapters need to be opened as soon as possible because of the implementation of the Prespa Agreement."
Efi Koutsokosta: "Actually you went to previous elections with this motivation, EU prospect, you went to the referendum to your people to change the constitutional name of your country because of this EU prospect. How can you convince them now that you still trust the Europeans?"
Zoran Zaev- Prime Minister of North Macedonia: "(It's) probably (like) Don Quijote's fight - we are continuing. There is no alternative for us, we are aware. We are friends with everybody. We are a small country, we are friends with Greece, friends with Russia, China, the Middle East, everybody but they don't bring democracy and rule of law."
Efi Koutsokosta: "Serbia's President, speaking about the broader picture, already has said that EU's decision has left the region feel that they cannot rely on its Western neighbours alone. Do you share this idea? We see this kind of shifts in the Balkans."
Zoran Zaev- Prime Minister of North Macedonia: "No, for sure not. Because we are trained to be disappointed in the small countries here in the Balkans. And my country is a candidate country for 15 years. We have ten positive recommendations to start negotiations, ten since 2009 and there was a disappointment once again, mainly because of Greece and now after a solution, mainly because of France."
Efi Koutsokosta: "So do you think that Mr Macron is killing Balkans' EU dream?"
Zoran Zaev- Prime Minister of North Macedonia: "The discussion that is open with French representatives and especially personally with President Macron gave me an explanation for an enlargement process where there is to be some methodology that will give more chance for the countries to have a successful process of transformation but those who don't have, will stop it, frozen or go back again to reopen some chapters. That's fair enough."
"I think that the next days and months there will be some ideas of the new methodology preparing and to do this methodology to give us again (a) chance because they must know that the European Union needs to give motivation here and support us because it's our right to be a member country because it's by the European Treaty. Having that in mind, if they turn out the lights from the European Union stars, here will be dark. In the dark, we will lose ourself. That means that multi-ethnic Balkan doesn't need to be provoked back in the past."
Zaev concerned over the prospect nationalism could return to The Balkans
Efi Koutsokosta: "Do you see a real risk there?"
Zoran Zaev- Prime Minister of North Macedonia: "I'm afraid very much. It's terrible. Why? Because if there is positive soil (breeding ground) for nationalism, radicalism to rise again, it will make big damage to the whole (of the) Balkans. And when the Balkans has a problem, Europe has a problem."
"If some nationalism appears in my country for example, and that is why I decided to go to a snap election, to bypass this time and period to buy a few months and to send a message to President Macron and the other European Leaders, (that) with this bypass I will avoid a positive soil (breeding ground) of increasing nationalism, radicalism, populism, and (if this happened, this) will provoke for sure our neighbours especially Greece and Bulgaria," added Zaev.
"We don't need that. If there are other provocations they will react also domestically. Nobody after two and a half years of talks about interethnic relations has bad behaviour - no, we are equal. If we reopen again interethnic relations in a negative manner, if there is a provocation at an ethnical level, this will create huge damage," warned Zaev.