The Macron Trauma for the Republic of North Macedonia
By Suad Skenderi
The Republic of North Macedonia has been a country that relied on the vision to become a part of the European Union sharing its strategic orientation, principles and values. The country began its EU path on December 22, 1995, when diplomatic relations between the North Macedonia and the EU were first established, opening negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia with an aim to conclude an extensive cooperation agreement in the field of trade, financial operations and transport. Successively, on 24 January 2000, the European Commission’s Directives proposed to the Council of the European Union were adopted, referring to the increased level of cooperation between the Republic of North Macedonia and the EU, which also meant the formal launch of negotiations for potential EU membership.
North Macedonia alike all the countries in the region have had complicated relations with its neighbors, especially with Bulgaria and Greece. In order to accelerate the efforts towards the EU integration, in a short time period, North Macedonia has been very proactive dealing with the foreign affairs.
In August 2017, the Republic of North Macedonia and Bulgaria reaffirmed their friendship relations with a conclusion of an agreement that generated a solution of an issue regarding the history of both of the countries. This act was acknowledged as a step ahead towards the EU integration and enlarging the number of allies that will support the EU vision of the country. Both of the Prime Ministers had high hopes that joint commission will overcome open issues and find a win-win solution to all the disputes.
The Prespa agreement brokered by the EU has been a monumental accord for both North Macedonia and Greece having to resolve an issue that lasted for 28 years. Signed in June 2018, this agreement was saluted from the whole continent recognized as a positive step towards stability and prosperity for the whole region. This is how the biggest ‘enemy’ became the strongest ally in the Euro Atlantic integration of the Republic of North Macedonia.
In addition, the widely labeled Mini-Schengen initiative which was a determination of North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania was signed in October 2019. This initiative aims to introduce a declaration for free movement of people, goods, services and capital between the three countries. This regional initiative was acknowledged as one of the prerequisites for EU membership, along with the adoption of the EU acquis and economic empowerment.
Having this all achieved in a period of 3 years with all the support from the EU institutions, it was more than obvious that efforts of North Macedonia will be rewarded with approval for opening the accession negotiations with the EU. After 14 lengthy years as a candidate to join the European Union, North Macedonia appeared to be on the verge of opening membership talks. Yet, a paradox in the support for the enlargement process appeared to disturb the harmony of plaudits. French president Emanuel Macron was the only one opposing the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
Over the course of a several days, the entire EU tried to alter his stance on the accession process. Starting from the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to the high representative Frederica Mogherini, the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and all the remaining 26 heads of states agreed that EU should boost the motivation and reward the efforts of North Macedonia and Albania with granting the accession negotiations. Even after Netherlands and Denmark softened their stance at least for North Macedonia, French President Macron remained firm.
At the end of the Council meeting, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev returned from Brussels with a bittersweet taste of EU integration and hinted he will announce general snap elections. The lack of recognition of the impact made towards the EU integration created a rather instable political context in the country. All the efforts invested in foreign affairs in this mandate may have a boomerang effect on the current government due to the unpreparedness and lack of leadership of the EU.
The snap elections in North Macedonia are expected to be held in 12 April 2020, which would provide a second chance to this coalition or a fresh new start for the opposition since the fall of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The current political context in the country disturbed the governing coalition just when other significant domestic reforms were about to start.
Making matters worse, the EU seems to no longer be open and inclusive for candidate countries. Macron said in a statement that North Macedonia does not necessarily need to be part of the EU, but rather could be a strategic neighboring partner that can join the EU single market. Due to these experiences, North Macedonia becomes a collateral damage of the enlargement process and the lack of leadership in the EU.
Another scenario that was turned down during the council meeting was the change of the methodology at the initiative of the Finnish presidency. It was proposed that North Macedonia open accession negotiations but with a reversible methodology. Having this proposed, the country would have opened chapters and implement reforms. If the country had a limited progress in some of the chapters that were already closed, the country would have had to revisit them again. Macron was still not fond of this idea.
The last scenario that was also rejected by Macron was the separating the enlargement process for the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania. Still, Macron believed that if EU opened accession negotiations with North Macedonia and later with Albania, it would cause a conflict within the region.
All of the options were not favorable for Macron, the council meeting ended with an official conclusion which was not elaborated why North Macedonia did not open the accession negotiations. Although all the homework was done and the Copenhagen criteria were met, Macron, the liberal who was labeled as the protector of the EU values, did not seem to be satisfied from the progress of the country.
On the bright side, certain allies of North Macedonia are seeking to keep the question of enlargement high on the EU agenda. Italian Prime Minister Conte invited Zaev to continue the efforts to join the EU, although the EU itself does not know how it will proceed with the candidate countries. It remains an open question for North Macedonia if the country orients towards the EU, the union that looks upon the region as the ‘third world countries of the continent’ or if they should reassess their national interests and orient towards other axis of power? On the one hand, Macron insists that the EU is not ready to enlarge, demotivating the people of the Western Balkans, while on the other hand, Germany and Italy insist that North Macedonia continue with its EU aspirations and wait for the next council meeting in Zagreb 2020. Macron’s decision should be underlined as a historic mistake that will have a boomerang effect across the Western Balkans region.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the platform.
Suad Skenderi – the Executive Director of the Institute for Research and Policy Analysis – Romalitico – Skopje, North Macedonia