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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
 Europe 2030, p 6.
 Europe 2030, p 10.
 Europe 2030, p. 73.
 Europe 2030, p.70.
 Europe 2030, p. 17.