By Srdjan Cvijic
The decision to open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia will be a litmus test for the EU’s ability to affect positive change in the Western Balkans region.Senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute
Wednesday's vote of no confidence in Alexis Tsipras-led government in Greece removes one of the last hurdles standing in the way of the resolution of a 27-year-long dispute between Athens and Skopje.
The vote on 11 January in Skopje to ratify the 2018 Prespa Agreement signals a new beginning for North Macedonia and for the entire Western Balkans region. The two-thirds majority vote in parliament in favour of renaming the country and revising its constitution is a testament to the political maturity of the country’s leadership and lawmakers.
Greece’s ratification of the agreement would remove one of the last obstacles standing in the way of European Union membership for North Macedonia. Moreover, it would provide a positive impetus for the rest of the Western Balkans.
However, this is far from a done deal. Following the changes to the North Macedonian constitution, and formal adoption of its new name, the onus is on the Greek government to shepherd the ratification of the agreement through its parliament, together with a document clearing the way for North Macedonia’s accession to NATO. The EU then needs to keep its promise and open accession negotiations with North Macedonia no later than the European Council summit in June 2019.
Action by both Greece and the EU would open a trajectory for integration for North Macedonia. Equally important, they could show other political leaders in the region - including those in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina - that compromise pays off, and that sacrificing entrenched notions of national identity to secure a common European future is worthwhile.
Following renewed confidence in the Syriza-led government today, it is vital that the Greek parliament ratify the Prespa Agreement before the country’s next elections later this year. This could potentially take place it the next days as outlined in a new report from the Open Society European Policy Institute. However, political uncertainty presents serious challenges in the form of New Democracy (ND), Greece’s main opposition party, which is vehemently opposed to the agreement.
In an interview held prior to last night vote, New Democracy’s leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, hinted that his government would use Greece’s leverage as an EU member state to demand “corrections” to the agreement in the future. Should a future ND-led government use the EU membership to roll back on the agreement, or should there be a failure to ratify the agreement in the Greek parliament before the next elections, it would run the risk of destabilizing the entire Western Balkans region. The consequences of such a move could allow the Kremlin space to exercise its malignant influence in the region. To avoid this, it is imperative that the vote in Athens takes place as soon as possible.
Next, it’s over to the EU. North Macedonia was the first of the Western Balkans Six to obtain candidate status for EU membership in 2005. Now, in light of the name change, EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia should begin in earnest in June 2019.
Despite the behaviour of the previous Nikola Gruevski government, described by the European Commission in its 2016 report on the country as “state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society," North Macedonia is currently among the regional leaders in terms of implementing the necessary reforms for EU accession.
According to a study by the Think for Europe Network - a group of think tanks from all Western Balkan countries - North Macedonia is ahead of the current frontrunner candidates for EU membership, Serbia and Montenegro. When it comes to the overall preparedness in transposing EU legislation (the Acquis Communautaire) and the economic criteria for membership, North Macedonia is in the lead.
It is clear that North Macedonia is fulfilling its side of the bargain; now it is incumbent on the EU to do its part. Pending Greece’s ratification of the Prespa Agreement, the EU must now open accession negotiations with North Macedonia. General concerns over the future of the EU or fears of a populist tide in the upcoming European Parliament elections should not be used to stall these negotiations.
It is expected that the Greek government will fulfill its part of the deal; it is less certain what the EU will do. The price of failure is stark. Gruevski, the disgraced former North Macedonian Prime Minister, remains in the wings, outrageously granted “asylum” by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The prospect of a return to corrupt authoritarianism under Russia’s influence has not yet disappeared.
The decision to open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia will be a litmus test for the EU’s ability to affect positive change in the Western Balkans region. The European Council decision this June will show whether the EU’s transformative power is still alive or, as many argue, dead and buried.
Srdjan Cvijic is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.