Macedonia and the EU
For the last few years there is a widespread standard narrative on Macedonia. It goes like this: Macedonia is doomed to paralysis and standstill, because it cannot start EU membership negotiations. Although the European Commission has recommended the start of negotiations for five years in a row, the European Council refrains from giving its consent. This is due to a veto by Greece, which demands that Macedonia first change its name. The results of this stalemate are stalling reforms, a stagnating economy, and a deteriorating human rights situation, in particular with regard to the freedom of media.
There is a central underlying assumption to this narrative: The EU pulled off an extraordinary foreign policy stunt by offering Macedonia a serious membership perspective. It managed to pull back ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian belligerents from the brink of full-scale civil war in 2001. The EU provided incentives for political leaders on both sides to take hard decisions. They agreed to painful compromises in exchange for a credible perspective for a more stable and prosperous future. At the same time, through the accession process, the EU set the country on a decade long, extraordinarily demanding reform process, eventually turning Macedonia into a better-administered, more just and more prosperous society.
But then the Greek veto expedited Macedonia's European vision to the freezer. In 2008, Greece prevented Macedonia's accession to NATO. In 2009 it blocked the start of EU membership negotiations. The Greek veto is related to a bilateral dispute about the country's name, not to any of the many demanding technical reform criteria. The credibility of the supposedly merit-based accession process has taken a serious blow, thereby eliminating central incentives for Macedonia's leaders to further pursue a difficult and painful reform process. With the path towards a promising future blocked, the prime minister instead resorted to building a promising past.
This explanation overlooks a central fact. Back in the 2000s, the EU was not keen on offering Macedonia a credible membership perspective. It had allowed Macedonia to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement at the height of the conflict in April 2001. But it became reluctant afterwards. It was Macedonian political leaders, in particular late President Boris Trajkovski and then Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska, who saw in the EU accession perspective a way to overcome Macedonia's divisions and to lead the country into a better future. However, a number of EU member states, including Germany and France, sent senior officials to Skopje to discourage an application. It took courage to disregard such friendly advice. But Trajkovski and Sekerinska convinced Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski to go ahead and hand in the application in 2004. The European Commission prepared a positive opinion and in November 2005 recommended granting Macedonia candidate status. France declared it might veto the proposal. Instead, it proposed a new debate as to whether there should be any further EU enlargement at all. The United Kingdom proposed a new budget for the EU that would have precluded any serious pre-accession assistance for the Western Balkans for the following 7-year budgetary period.
In the end, on 16 December 2005 the European Council granted Macedonia official candidate status, but the initiative at that time was not in Brussels. It was in Skopje.
Nearly a decade later, Macedonia is still only a candidate, and nothing more. In November 2009 the European Commission recommended the opening of accession negotiations with Macedonia, but on 8 December 2009 Greece objected to specifying a date for opening membership talks. Greece insisted that before the start of negotiations Macedonia has to change its name taking Greece's concerns into account. This is still the situation today.
The lesson from Macedonia's progress in the mid-2000s is not that visionary politicians from the EU pushed Macedonia ahead. It was the initiative of Macedonia's leaders, sizing opportunities and taking political risks. This is also true today: A major initiative on the Macedonian side is no guarantee for success. But without it, Macedonia will not be allowed to formally start negotiations for years to come.
In ESI's forthcoming report on Macedonia, we present a way for the EU to set powerful incentives for reforms in Macedonia, even without the start of formal negotiations.
ESI report: Vladimir and Estragon in Skopje (2014)
ESI Discussion Paper: Moment of Truth. Macedonia, the EU budget and the destabilisation of the Balkans (2005)