Macedonia changes its whole name but Macron does nothing, writes Janja Klasinc in daily Delo’s Saturday edition on 22 November 2019.
The tweet was sent to the world by the frustrated Johannes Hahn, the outgoing EU Enlargement Commissioner on 18 October 2019 from Brussels shortly before 5am. The night before, European leaders at the European Council were deciding whether to finally set a date for the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The leaders, despite holding discussions that lasted many hours could not reach an agreement. According to numerous media reports, France opposed the green light for North Macedonia, while the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain gave red light to Albania. All other member states, led by Germany, supported the opening of accession negotiations for both countries, but debate ended without any conclusions – as many times before.
North Macedonia is certainly in the most difficult position. Ever since 1991, when the country gained independence after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, its name has been the subject of a dispute with its southern neighbour Greece. Macedonia has always been called the northern Greek province, so Greece has consistently claimed the former Yugoslav Republic has appropriated its heritage – the heritage of Alexander the Great. Disputes over the name worsened during the reign of VMRO-DPMNE in Macedonia after the somewhat ridiculous erection of a multitude of monuments and buildings depicting ancient Greece across the nation’s capital Skopje, as well as renaming the airport and highway to Alexander the Great. But the change of government in the 2017 elections marked a significant turnaround. New center-left prime minister Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democratic party, has emerged as a much more flexible leader than his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski from VMRO-DPMNE. One of the first moves to improve relations with Greece was the change of the airport name to Skopje airport, as well as the name of the highway that leads towards Greece, which is now called Friendship.
The change of governments in both countries has brought about a warming of relations between Macedonia and Greece, and both foreign ministers Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kocias have prepared fertile ground for the adoption of the Prespa agreement, which they signed on 17 June 2018 in the presence of prime ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras.
The Prespa Agreement entered into force on February 12 this year. The condition for its realization was the change of the name of the Macedonian state to the Republic of North Macedonia. In the agreement, Greece pledged to recognise Macedonia under its new name, agreed that the official language of the neighbouring country is called Macedonian, and that the two countries should establish a strategic partnership. The Prespa agreement is intended to enable North Macedonia not only to significantly improve relations with its southern neighbour, but also to open the door to Euro-Atlantic ties.
. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed hope in June that the ratification process for the accession protocol for North Macedonia would be completed by December this year and that the country would become a full member at the next NATO summit in London.
The efforts of the North Macedonia’s government are greatly appreciated by all who are well aware of the complexities of interstate and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. Among them is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who just a day before the last European Council meeting in the Bundestag called on the EU to “keep its promises” and inform North Macedonia as well as Albania that they are on a firm path to becoming part of the European club. According to unofficial sources, Merkel also sought to personally influence strong stance by the French president Emanuel Macron, but he was not persuaded by any arguments.
The Paris’ official position is that all countries wishing to become EU members must strictly abide by the rules and that North Macedonia has not fulfilled the expected transformation of the special court against corruption. Macron’s main requirement, however, concerns the whole association process. The French president believes it should be thoroughly re-examined and re-established as the current one is not effective.
Macron is partially right about this. Since the 2004 enlargement, when Slovenia became a full member, the entry criteria has been quite loosened. Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, each in their own way, have considerable difficulty in upholding the rule of law, fighting corruption and also in basic democratic standards. But aren’t some other EU members facing the same problems? For example, Poland and Hungary, and in many respects the “old Europe” countries are not exempt either. It would probably be more consistent to respect the fundamental values of the EU in the member states and in the Commission. Paris believes that it is necessary to first sort out things within the EU and only then deal with expansion. Commissioner Hahn opposes this, saying that both processes (or both) must be undertaken at the same time. More than anything, European leaders should be aware of the political and security implications by ignoring the Western Balkans. In a speech to MEPs in May this year, the French president said he did not want the Western Balkans to turn to Turkey or Russia, but nevertheless sent them in that direction days after blocking North Macedonia.
The unfulfilled promises made by the whole of the EU and NATO to North Macedonia can undercut all the progress the country has achieved and built on in recent years. The hard-hearted people voted to change the name only because of the promises for a better European future. The possible return to power of the VMRO-DPMNE would again put the country under the auspices of that party, favoured by Russia, and into the old disputes with neighbouring Greece.
The case for Albania may be equally or even more fatal, although expectations for its accession process were much lower than those for Macedonia. The Republic of Albania became the official candidate for EU membership in June 2014 and started negotiating as a potential candidate country with a stabilization and association agreement in 2003. Its main problems are high levels of corruption and slow and inefficient judiciary. However, in a recent progress report on Albania, MEPs highlighted its continued progress on EU-related reforms and measures to strengthen the independence of the judiciary. The MEPs also supported the intention of the EU Council to open accession negotiations with this country in June 2019. But in the second half of October these turned out to be empty promises.
Processes that are taking place in particular between Albania and Kosovo should serve as a warning. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has already made a statement in 2017 that has not particularly shaken Brussels: “If the region loses the prospect of joining the EU, the Kosovo-Albania alliance is a realistic possibility!” Everyone who has little understanding of the developments in the Western Balkans understands what this means.
A series of indicators show that the process of integration of Kosovo and Albania is already underway. The two countries hold regular joint meetings of governments at which they adopt cooperation agreements. To name a few: they have concluded agreements on mutual recognition of driving licenses, on joint customs control at the Morina border crossing, on public debt and joint cooperation with international financial institutions, on the abolition of mobile roaming between the two countries, on cooperation on youth issues and on health. They also signed agreements on the recognition of phytosanitary and veterinary licenses, an agreement establishing a Joint Chamber of Commerce of Kosovo and Albania, and an agreement on the recognition of industrial property. Recently, Kosovo’s former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, said at the signing of these agreements to the Kosovo news agency Kosovapress, that the Albanian and Kosovo economies would soon be united. Albin Kurti, the chairman of the nationalist Self-Determination Party and the new Prime Minister of Kosovo, has publicly advocated for Greater Albania in recent years. Hence, the path to uniting all Albanians in the Western Balkans is a pretty viable option. What the reaction of the Serbs would be is not difficult to imagine. Certainly, Serbs can count on Russia’s support (this is evident also after the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s recent visit to commemorate the 75th anniversary since the liberation of Belgrade), while Albanians traditionally rely on the US support. Hard-achieved peace in this area can be destroyed very quickly in such circumstances.
If Albania started EU membership negotiations, it would be under the watchful eye of Brussels, people would have a clearer perspective and the plans for Greater Albania would be less likely.
What happened on the night of October 17-18 in Brussels is therefore difficult to comprehend. Of particular importance is the fact that the opening of EU membership negotiations with both countries would only mean opening the door to the future, whose ultimate goal – the full EU membership – is a long way off, and therefore does not endanger anyone at this time. However, it would make a significant contribution to maintaining the stability of the entire region.
This article was originally published in Delo’s Saturday edition on 22 November 2019. The author Janja Klasinc is a former journalist and was a correspondent for Delo and RTV Slovenija in Belgrade during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. The link to the original article.
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