What’s in a Name: The Republic of North Macedonia, the Empire Strikes Back

By Liridona Veliu, PhD candidate, DCU School of Law and Government

North Macedonia: No accession talks with the EU lead to snap elections

Long into the future in a galaxy not so far, far away, (North) Macedonia too is a star in a European Union (EU) flag, perhaps. This is not happening anytime soon though. Approximately a year ago, I wrote a blog post on Macedonia’s change of name. On the 30th September 2018, North Macedonia’s citizens were invited to cast their votes on a referendum and answer the question: “Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”. Cut to now: in spite of all the debate surrounding the referendum and which stretches from the ambiguity of the question at the ballot per se to the low turnout of eligible voters, North Macedonia did change its name but it did not get an invitation to start its accession talks with the EU. Ouch.

The European Council (EUCO) reached no unanimity when meeting on 17th and 18th October 2019 as the French President, Emmanuel Macron stood alone in saying “non” to the opening of negotiations with the country. Just as the agreement and the referendum were deemed historic(al) by many political actors, Macron’s verdict was deemed disappointing, a mistake, a historic error and a failure by the currently acting European Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker and his successor, Ursula von der Leyen; the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk; EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini; EU commissioner, Johannes Hahn; as well as by leaders of other EU member states such as the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte; Polish President, Andrzej Duda; and Lithuanian President, Gitanas Nausėda. The rejection sparked displeased reactions to the EU and reassured support to North Macedonia even by the U.S. State Department; and the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.

While the European Council concluded that it will revert to the issue of enlargement before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May 2020, this decision undermined the domestic political reputation of North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev who took major risks in supporting the Prespa Agreement. Snap elections in North Macedonia are hence to take place on 12th April 2020. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party that had refused the agreement, is expected to campaign for its revocation. VMRO-DPMNE had ruled the country for eleven years, while its former leader, the conservative-nationalist Nikola Gruevski is currently a political fugitive in Hungary attempting to escape jail under serious corruption charges.

Macron-Protests effect: From North Macedonia to the Western Balkans and beyond

North Macedonia was not the only Western Balkan (WB) country that left the last EUCO meeting disappointed. France was joined by Denmark and Netherlands in opposing the beginning of the accession talks with Albania too. Both, North Macedonia and Albania had received the first EU Commission’s recommendations for the start of accession talks in 2009 and 2018 respectively, and were expected to undertake a step forward in their EU integration processes with Macedonia having resolved the name dispute and with both countries having initiated the required key judicial reforms. Both were left disillusioned. The unkept promises and the unmet expectations threaten with a spillover effect into the EU-facilitated talks between Serbia and Kosovo as the accession to the EU is used as a tool for normalizing the relationship between the two countries. Montenegro, being the only WB country left on the margins of the most recent debate, is using the country’s pathway to the EU and NATO as a replacement to a recent regional initiative on lifting barriers to free trade and travel.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not going anywhere either and it, arguably, got a bigger “slap in the face” when in a recent controversial interview for The Economist, Macron referred to the country as a “time-bomb that’s ticking” due to its problem of returning jihadists. While the interview sparks reflections which are further elaborated in the section below, this is not the only time that France has noted the country’s Muslim religious ties. In 1990, the former President of France, François Mitterrand is reported to have said of Bosnia and other European countries with Muslim population as not belonging to the European community “because they would be the only Muslim countries in Europe”. Macron is also under fire for recently extending other controversial remarks to even EU member states in saying that he “would  rather have people who come from Guinea or Côte d’Ivoire legally… than Bulgarian or Ukrainian clandestine networks” which prompted Bulgaria and Ukraine to issue formal diplomatic protests and demand an explanation from Macron. Protests seem to be following the French President home and abroad.

The Balkans and Europe: “Luke, I am your father”

Behind Macron’s divergent stance is the need for “a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process”, before any new member states joined. First, while the argument of EU needing to consolidate itself before accepting any new members is accepted due to the new Brexit situation, when it comes to the WB and the start of their accession talks, it is at its best hypocritical. Extending an invitation for the beginning of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is in no way an equivalent to the two becoming member states. Until the countries would have reached the desirable transformation in order to join the EU, the EU would have had enough time to reform, improve or even collapse. Second, while the French President did not provide any suggestions on how to reform the enlargement process itself, he has been noted to consider that the EU “at 28 today, 27 [members] tomorrow, in its current operating rules… no longer knows how to take sufficiently strategic and strong decisions”. I wonder if the same argument would have applied should Switzerland instead of the WB asked to join the union.

EU and Balkan states. Copyright (2017) by Paresh Nath. Reproduced with permission.

What Macron’s interview for The Economist reveals, is rather two other underlying motives behind his opposing stance: one, the aspiration for a leading role of France within a reformed EU independent of NATO; and two, a long-standing Western tradition of perceiving the Balkans as, well, in Macron’s own words, a “time-bomb that’s ticking”. The first motive is shining through the apocalyptic tone of the interview in which the French President speaks of a Europe which has “lost track of its history” and faces the risk it might “disappear geopolitically”. He wants to “stop the world from catching fire” by reminding everyone that “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO”, but “France knows how to protect itself” as the “last remaining nuclear power in the European Union”. In a nutshell, it is time to make Europe great again. In a reformed EU in which “some elements must only be European”, the Balkans seem to be just European enough to run for accession but not enough to fully make it. Even when attempting to defend the Balkans, Western conceptualization of the Balkans as Europe’s “other” from within which is threatening to return to its tribal past persist. “After all, it’s the Balkans. We have seen this happen before”, says Carl Bildt.

The message this sends to North Macedonia and other WB countries is one in which even their change of name would not suffice to overcome the constant doubt on their belonging to the European family. The Balkans are hence left with two possible scenarios: one, shifting the gaze towards themselves; and two, searching for another friend among Russia, China, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. It is no mystery that the change of name of North Macedonia was more the result of external rather than internal impetuses, and it was moreover driven by the idea of abandoning a Balkan past and entering another era of post-balkanization. The change of name was hence conditioned by outer expectations and in turn conditioned the externalization of gaze from the country towards the EU in hopes of receiving the much-needed approval and confirmation. Who knows, Emmanuel Macron might even end up being the one to thank for the much needed enlightenment, as a group of Bosnian students remarked in a letter they addressed to him: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité – Freedom, equality and fraternity are not reserved for France alone”. Most probably however, the fragile WB will need to rely on a more powerful ally to make it out there in the world of giants, and frankly, they do not seem to be out of options.

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