The European Union and NATO were both heavily involved in the resolution of the 2001 conflict and the subsequent process of restoring stability in Macedonia. Seven years later Macedonia is seeking to become a member of both the EU and NATO. It was granted EU candidate status in December 2005 and is hoping to receive an invitation to start accession talks by the end of 2008. Macedonia's bid to join NATO, meanwhile, was dealt a setback at the Bucharest summit in April 2008, when its invitation for membership was blocked by Greece.
Macedonia has been one of the success stories of EU foreign policy in the Balkans. A team led by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary General George Robertson was able to broker a peace deal in August 2001 to end six months of escalating fighting. To ease tensions, the EU had previously signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Macedonia on 9 April 2001. The Union's credibility was therefore at stake. Solana discusses the EU's role in the negotiations which led to the Ohrid Framework agreement:
"The rapidity, the speed at which the European Union was present, immediately after the beginning of the potential conflict, was fundamental. And the second thing: we were there with tremendous tenacity, day and night, talking with everybody, for hours and hours, and we really prevented a breakdown of the negotiations, and started a process that is still alive and in good health."
After the conflict, the EU maintained small military and police missions in Macedonia, which were subsequently phased out. In the wake of the conflict the EU also established the Office of EU Special Representative in Macedonia to help maintain stability. In November 2005 it was merged with the regular Delegation of the European Commission.
The downsizing of the EU's security presence reflected widely acknowledged progress since the 2001 conflict and impressive headway in the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. After ambitious Macedonian officials pressed ahead with an application of EU membership in March 2004, Macedonia was granted the status of a candidate country in December 2005. This put Macedonia ahead of all the other West Balkan countries, except Croatia.
Looking back at 2001, Javier Solana said in an interview in early 2008:
"In 2001, we were talking about being at the brink of a catastrophe; and now, in 2008, we are talking about being a candidate for the European Union. This is a great success."
The European Commission has not yet set a date for the start of membership negotiations, however. The Macedonian government aims to persuade the EC to announce a date in late 2008. The violence during the early parliamentary elections in June 2008, however, might be used by reluctant EU member states as a pretext for further postponing the start of negotiations.
Macedonia also has to meet a set of eight benchmarks for domestic reform, announced by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn in March 2008. These include improving the work and independence of the judiciary, implementing agreed police reforms, tackling corruption, improving the business climate, and making progress in the political dialogue between the ethnic Macedonian and Albanian communities – and between the political parties.
More importantly, the decision to set a date for accession talks is subject to a possible veto by Greece. Macedonia's southern neighbour has already blocked its accession to NATO – although Macedonia had met all the technical and political requirements.
Seven years after it was itself the focus of a NATO mission – "Operation Essential Harvest", to disarm the ethnic-Albanian NLA – Macedonia now contributes to peacekeeping missions around the world. 200 of its soldiers are deployed worldwide, including a sizable contingent in Afghanistan and smaller units in Iraq, Bosnia and Lebanon. Macedonian defence ministers have repeatedly claimed that participation in international peacekeeping operations is an important way of demonstrating the country's readiness for NATO.
While formal invitations to join NATO were issued to Albania and Croatia during the April 2008 summit in Bucharest, a Greek veto – related to the longstanding dispute about Macedonia's name – put a brake on Macedonia’s ambitions.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has expressed his hope that Macedonia and Greece would be able to negotiate a resolution to the name dispute soon, thereby allowing Macedonia to join the alliance at the same time as Albania and Croatia, in April 2009:
"I do hope that we might at a certain stage see three invitations – not only to Albania and Croatia, but to our friends in Skopje as well … The name issue will have to be solved for that. I express a hope that a solution will be found sooner rather than later on the basis of NATO's 'open door' policy, and also in the interest of security and stability in the Balkans."
The internal political crisis that followed the rejection of Macedonia's bid for NATO membership reveals the importance of NATO and EU accession for Macedonia. Both processes enjoy widespread support among the population, providing palpable prospects for a stable and prosperous future. The EU accession perspective is also important for inducing foreign investors to boost the still rather weak local economy – undermining it would place the post-2001 achievements at risk.