A Proposal for breaking the Macedonian deadlock: A matter of trust

What follows is a concrete and simple proposal how to break one of the most important deadlocks undermining the stabilisation of the Western Balkans. The aim is to bring to an end a situation that has made a mockery of European aspirations of having an effective EU foreign policy in the Balkans, a region of major strategic interest to the EU.

The issue in question is the dispute between Skopje and Athens over the name “Macedonia”. As the 19 year old conflict has grown more complicated, the breakdown of trust between the two sides – the conflict’s underlying problem – has taken on an increasingly poisonous role. This is also negatively affecting the accession prospects of the entire Western Balkans at a time when there are already strong signals that some EU member states want to put the process on hold altogether.

This may well be the last moment to try to resolve the dispute. If efforts fail now, it is perfectly possible – as some in the EU are already predicting – that the conflict will remain unresolved for another 19 years, keeping Macedonia outside the EU for the next two decades and beyond.

What is needed is a way forward that recognises the bottom lines for Athens and Skopje. It must address the most important issue directly: how to ensure that any compromise reached between the two will actually stick. Such a compromise must come soon. People on both sides, as well as in Brussels and Washington, have grown tired of a conflict that appears impossible to solve. As people give up, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in so many frozen conflicts.

Here is the core problem. Greece realises that its only leverage to ever get the Republic of Macedonia to change its constitutional name is to use its position as a member of the EU to block Macedonia’s path to EU membership. Nothing else – not even Greek pressure to block Macedonia’s NATO accession – will do the trick.

At the same time, most politicians in Athens realise that they have a vital interest in Macedonia’s stability. Athens is in favour of Balkan enlargement. And it does not want to be used by those in the EU who have an interest in stopping Balkan enlargement for good. How can this circle be squared?

The other problem for the Greek position is that the trend in Skopje in recent years has been towards greater intransigence. It is clear that any constitutional change needs broad support in Skopje. Prime Minister Gruevski currently enjoys a strong political position, but constitutional changes will require a two thirds majority in parliament, as well as the support of both ethnic communities. There is almost certain to be a referendum as well.

Finally, although officials in Skopje and across the EU believe that the current Greek government of George Papandreou would like to see a solution – and although an intense effort for bilateral talks is currently under way – overall trust in the Greek political establishment is scarce.

People and leaders in Skopje might be prepared to make a concession on the name of the country, but only under one condition: that it ensures the country’s EU accession. To change the name for the mere promise of starting talks with an uncertain outcome at this moment is unlikely to be accepted. No Greek government can guarantee Skopje that any concession made today – to unlock the door to EU accession talks – will actually stick once a new Greek government comes to power.

At a time of great political tension due to the economic crisis, Greek leaders not only have the problem of explaining any compromise to their voters – they also fear that if Greece allows the EU accession of Macedonia to proceed today it will lose leverage, no longer being assured of a favourable compromise at a later stage.

Greece is adamant that any change of name must be erga omnes, i.e. must be part of the Macedonian constitution and used in relations with the entire world, not just with Greece or international institutions. (Some in Greece want to go further and also change the name of the people (“Macedonians”) and the language (“Macedonian”), something that stands very little chance of ever being accepted by Skopje.) In fact, the fear that a concession on the name of the country will only be a prelude to further Greek demands is what keeps leaders in Skopje from making any concession whatsoever.

In other words, both countries are trapped.

Here then is the challenge. Both Greece and Macedonia have a vital interest in ensuring that other enlargement-sceptical countries in Europe not hide behind them and their dispute to undermine the whole Western Balkans accession agenda. Yet Macedonians will only change the name erga omnes if they know that they will then actually join the EU – and that this is the last word. And Greece will only open the road to EU accession (starting with the opening of accession talks) if Macedonia changes the constitution.

How can this conundrum be resolved? It can be done through a constitutional amendment in Skopje that changes the name of the country today, allowing Athens to support the start of accession talks later this year, but that also foresees that the change will only enter into force on the day Macedonia actually joins the EU.

The constitutional change could be simple, a single paragraph that says something to the effect of:

“All references to the Republic of Macedonia in this constitution will be replaced by a reference to XX (a compromise name such as Republic of Macedonia – Vardar) on the day this country joins the European Union.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

If for some reason Skopje never joins the EU, it will never have to change its name.

If future Greek (or other neighbours’) governments find new reasons to block Macedonia’s accession in the future (there are no less than 70 veto points where unanimity in the EU is required before a candidate joins the club) the name will not yet have changed.

On the other hand, the constitutional provision will guarantee that once Macedonia is a member, the name change will become effective immediately and automatically. It can also be written into Macedonia’s accession treaty.

This solution would allow both countries and their leaders to claim a victory today. The government in Skopje will also turn Greece into a genuine ally (based on mutual interest) to facilitate its timely accession. Athens can argue that it is only opening the path to accession in return for genuine and lasting constitutional change: something no previous Greek government has achieved.

What would make this deal even more attractive – and a referendum on the constitutional amendment even more likely to succeed in Skopje – would be a parallel Greek promise to allow Macedonia to join NATO under the name FYROM (the name under which Macedonia joined the UN) once the constitutional changes have been passed.

This is still a difficult compromise for both countries. If it is adopted, however, it will end a major deadlock and send a tremendously beneficial signal to the whole of the Balkans.

Greece would be part of the solution in the region, not a source of problems. Macedonia would show that it is indeed a country ready for the complex and painful compromises that are expected of full EU members. It could once again become a trailblazer for the rest of the region, and the first to begin full accession talks before Croatia joins the EU. And it would gain a genuine ally in Greece.

PS: Cutileiro’s vision

And here is the alternative to compromise. I recently came across an interesting little book with essays on the future of Europe published by Brookings. Its title is Europe 2030. It includes a series of essays, some of which also touch on the issue of enlargement. Will any of the countries of today’s Western Balkans, aside from Croatia, be EU members by the year 2030? Will all be? Or will only some manage to accede, while others stay on the outside looking in? The authors of these essays offer all three scenarios.

The first and most pessimistic comes from one of the biggest proponents of EU enlargement, Joschka Fischer. Fischer was Foreign Minister (1998-2005) when the German government was pushing hard for what later became the EU’s biggest enlargement ever in 2004. Fischer also played a key role in pushing for Turkish candidate status in 1999 and the opening of accession talks with Turkey in 2005. He sees enlargement as a powerful tool for transforming the European neighbourhood:

“The prospect of EU membership therefore offers nothing less than successful rejuvenation of a country’s economy, society, government, and legal system. By projecting power in this way, the EU has pioneered a policy that recognizes that security in the twenty-first century must be founded not primarily on military dominance but on complete and transformative modernization as well as on the harmonization, and even integration, of national interests.”[1]

At the same time, Fischer notes, “while almost all of the EU’s neighbours wish to join, its own citizens increasingly oppose not only further expansion but also deeper political integration.” His conclusion is that this (unfortunate) tendency will likely prevail:

“I doubt that Europe’s malaise can be overcome before 2030 … While the partial creation of a common defense system, along with a European army, is possible by 2030, a common foreign policy is not. Expansion of the EU to include the Balkan states, Turkey and Ukraine should also be ruled out.”[2]

The second scenario for the Balkans is proposed by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London. Grant predicts that the “entering into force of the Lisbon treaty will help the EU speak with one voice, when it has a common position on a foreign policy question.”[3] Grant also expects enlargement to continue:

“By 2030 the EU will include all of the Balkans, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway; Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus probably will be members; and some of the Caucasus countries may have joined.”[4]

It is not altogether surprising that the most pessimistic scenarios for the Balkans come from Germany (the Berlin scenario of a never-ending accession process), while the most optimistic ones are heard in the UK (the London scenario of enlargement within this generation).

But the third scenario is in some ways the most interesting and it directly concerns Macedonia. Jose Cutileiro, a former Portuguese diplomat and general secretary of the Western European Union, expects that Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are all likely to be in the EU by 2030. However, he argues, even 20 years from now not all the Balkan states will be in the EU.

“Kosovo on its own could not join because it remained unrecognised by a number of EU countries, and Macedonia had been kept at the door by insurmountable Greek objections concerning its name, first raised in 1991, when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was dissolved. Except for those two small, landlocked patches, the whole of the western Balkans was now part of the EU.”[5]

It is a realistic fear that unless a compromise is found now between Skopje and Athens, Macedonia might never join the EU. In this case, however, the German scenario for the whole Western Balkans becomes all the more likely, as the failure of Macedonia, the most advanced Western Balkan state, would bode ill for the whole region. Athens and Skopje, as well as the Balkans and the EU, would all be on the losing side.

[1] Europe 2030, p 6.

[2] Europe 2030, p 10.

[3] Europe 2030, p. 73.

[4] Europe 2030, p.70.

[5] Europe 2030, p. 17.

IISS, trafficking and stereotypes about the Wild Balkans

As numerous European leaders are looking for excuses to slow down the EU accession path of Western Balkan nations it becomes all the more important to be extremely precise when it comes to describing the problems of the region. How not to do it can be seen by looking at a recent publication by the respected IISS (International Institute of Strategic Studies).

A recent short “comment” under the sensationalist title Balkan crime jeopardises EU accession hopes notes

“Recent evidence of the depth and scale of criminal and corrupt activities have bolstered the arguments of those who believe that these countries have a long way to go before they can accede to the EU, and that any attempt to accelerate their accession would be mistaken.”

Then the tone of the paper is set with an opening quote from a 2003 EU document, including references to failed states, drugs, weapons and even terrorism (!):

“Organised crime is routinely listed by the EU and other bodies and governments in their assessments of security threats. The European Security Strategy developed by the EU in 2003, for example, said Europe was a prime target for organised crime which was ‘often associated with weak or failing states’. ‘This internal threat to our security’, it said, ‘has an important external dimension: cross-border trafficking in drugs, women, illegal migrants and weapons accounts for a large part of the activities of criminal gangs. It can have links with terrorism … All these activities undermine both the rule of law and social order itself. In extreme cases, organised crime can come to dominate the state.’ The strategy document also noted that most of the heroin coming to Europe from Afghanistan was distributed through Balkan criminal networks which ‘are also responsible for some 200,000 of the 700,000 women victims of the sex trade world-wide’.”

And the policy implication from all this is also spelt out in the conclusion:

“Regional efforts to rid the Balkans of their criminal networks come as expectations grow that Germany and other countries will demand ever-stricter criteria for countries wishing to join the EU after Croatia, which, if it resolves outstanding issues with the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, could be admitted in 2012 or 2013. The remaining countries of the region, however, have so much to do in terms of preparation, including tackling crime and improving judicial governance, that no other Balkan country can realistically be expected to join before 2020. Dealing with the issue of organised crime and corruption is a constant refrain from all concerned. Those sceptical of early EU enlargement to include the western Balkans often claim that Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU before their institutions, including justice and policing, were ready. The recent revelations have given such critics ammunition to argue that the mistake must not be made again.” (emphasis added by me)

In fact, as described in a recent ECFR paper, there are very good reasons, which have nothing to do with state failure or crime, why no Balkan country is likely to join the EU before 2020.

The quality of research behind this briefing is also made clear by the fact that the text leaves uncommented its own reference to “200,000 women victims of the sex trade”.

This number was always an imaginary figure: it was never (not even in 2003) based on any empirical evidence. But ironically, the IISS briefing appears shortly after another institution, the US State Departement, published its own annual assessment of the trafficking situation, confirming a positive trend in the Balkans that has been ongoing for years.

Now, what can one learn from the latest State Department Trafficking Report 2010? The best performing countries in the world when it comes to fighting trafficking are included in category 1. This means “countries whose governments fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) minimum standards.” And this includes not only most EU members but also BiH and Croatia!

Category 2, on the other hand, includes countries facing problems, such as Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey. But it is worth putting this in context: in this category (2) we also find 10 EU member states, including Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

It is also worth noting that “most of the heroin coming to Europe from Afghanistan” quite probably first has to cross Turkey (an EU candidate state and Nato member) as well as EU members Greece, Bulgaria and Romania to even get to the Western Balkans. Smugglers then still have to cross the external Schengen borders in Slovenia or Hungary as well. This is hardly a Western Balkan problem, it is an international one, and Italians, Turks, Colombians, Afghans, Russians and Ukrainians are as likely to be involved as Albanians or Serbs.

The concrete and recent evidence IISS offers in this short brief is of a successful Serbian police operation in cooperation with other law enforcement bodies against an international drug smuggling group. In fact, the whole brief suggests that there is growing and improving regional cooperation in successfully fighting crime.

It is banal to say that there is organised crime in the Balkans. It exists, as indeed it does in any other country of Europe. It is also banal to note that the situation today is very different (and much better) than in the 1990s. The real policy question is whether institutions in the region are building their capacity to fight it in cooperation with their counterparts in EU countries. In this light, one can read the following IISS observation rather differently:

“In January, the Serbian and Italian police arrested 33 people for cocaine trafficking, amongst whom were not only Serbs, Montenegrins and Albanians, but also Italians and Colombians. According to some reports, the seizure of the Maui followed the tracking in April 2009 of a shipment of drugs from Argentina to the Greek port of Thessalonika, where a Greek prosecutor did not allow the ship to be searched after he was provided with papers to prove that it had been checked on leaving Argentina.”

Here a ship (the Maui) goes from Argentina to Greece, and an international ring including Balkan citizens is exposed as a result of international police cooperation involving also Balkan police forces. Why this should be held against Western Balkan aspirations to begin accession talks is never explained.

By all means, let us be critical where efforts to fight organised crime fall short in the Balkans. But serious institutions such as IISS should not engage in sloppy arguments, based on outdated facts, and spiced up by prejudice.

For more please read: U.S. Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report 2010

High noon in Slovenia. A referendum and the future of Balkan enlargement (Bender and Knaus)

On Sunday, Slovenia’s citizens will cast their votes in a referendum on a question of apparently modest global significance: Are you in favour of a law ratifying an arbitration agreement between Slovenia and Croatia over a minor territorial dispute?

As a matter of fact, in casting their votes Slovenian citizens will be answering a much more fundamental question – one that will have huge implications for Slovenia’s future foreign policy, and perhaps for the future of EU enlargement in the Balkans.

Slovenian citizens will be deciding whether Slovenia will remain a supporter of the Europeanisation of the Western Balkans, or will join the ranks of EU countries that hope that the promise of a European future for the region can be deferred indefinitely.

These are difficult days for South East Europe. Unemployment is rising in the wake of financial turmoil in the EU. Frustration over the EU’s endless delaying tactics is poisoning the political climate. The EU gathering this week in Sarajevo turned out to be a disappointing flop. The German and French foreign ministers did not even turn up, with senior EU officials warning off the record that “Berlin has decided that enlargement is over”.

As always, the EU is quick to blame the region for its own problems. But this is beginning to ring hollow. At present, the EU has no credible policy towards the Balkans. From Greek intransigence over Macedonia’s name to European divisions on everything from Kosovo’s status to the future of the international mission in Bosnia to whether Serbia is cooperating with the Hague Tribunal, EU policy is in disarray.

In this situation, it is critical that those who believe in a European future for the Balkans make their voices heard. Since joining the EU in 2004, Slovenia has been a steadfast ally to the region. During its EU presidency, Slovenia worked hard for a more liberal visa regime. Sunday’s referendum, however, could bring this to an abrupt end. A ‘no’ vote would leave Croatia in no-man’s land, and the rest of the region even further from its destination. It would play directly into the hands of European enlargement skeptics.

What is this issue that might tempt Slovenians to turn against their friends and neighbours? The bone of contention is 13 square kilometres of largely uninhabited land, and a wedge of territorial water in and near Piran Bay. The sea is Slovenia’s main concern. Slovenia has been insisting that it must have ‘territorial contact’ with international waters in the Adriatic, to ensure the viability of its port of Koper and its national fishing industry.

To external observers, the Slovenian position is difficult to understand. Any ship using the port of Koper, or indeed the Italian port of Trieste, must pass through Croatian, Slovenian and Italian waters. This is no big deal, as under international law, all ships enjoy a right of innocent passage through the territorial waters of other states. As for fishing, even the option to discriminate against Slovenia would disappear once Croatia becomes a EU member.

Last November, the Slovenian prime minister Borut Pahor and his Croatian counterpart, Jadranka Kosor, agreed to an EU proposal to submit their dispute to a binding arbitration. This was a pragmatic way of resolving an issue that at the end of the day was important above all in its potential to derail Croatia’s accession process. It was a reassuring assertion of states(wo)manship by the two governments. After Pahor successfully pushed the deal through parliament in April, Sunday’s referendum is the final obstacle to putting this matter finally to bed.

Yet the leading Slovenian opposition party, the SDS of former prime minister Janez Jansa, has called on Slovenia to reject the deal, which Jansa describes as ‘capitulation’ and evidence of a ‘servile mentality’.

This is blatant populism. It was Jansa himself who, in 2007, reached an agreement with then Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader to submit the matter to an international tribunal. Nonetheless, recent opinion polls suggest that Jansa’s campaign is having an impact. What once appeared to be a comfortable majority in favour of compromise has now shrunk, and the result could go both ways.

If Slovenians vote ‘no’ on Sunday, it will be a godsend to opponents of EU enlargement, playing to every Balkan stereotype. If even Slovenia and Croatia, two traditional allies with no history of conflict, cannot resolve their disagreements, what hope is there for the rest of the region? Why would Europe want yet more fractious members in its already troubled ranks?

For many people in the Balkans, the prosperous, democratic nation of Slovenia has served as a beacon of hope. A ‘yes’ vote on Sunday would ensure that Slovenia retains its influence, within the EU and the Balkan region, as a champion of a European future for the region. It would truly be a step towards the day when the Northern Adriatic would become at last a place without borders.

All is now in the hands of the Slovenian electorate. It is truly high noon in Slovenia.

Kristof Bender Gerald Knaus

3 June 2010, Kristof Bender and Gerald Knaus (ESI)

The ESI Slovenia Project is funded by Erste Stiftung (Vienna)

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