SKOPJE, North Macedonia — You can see the signs of this country’s efforts to get an invitation from the EU. Literally.
Shiny metal plates on government buildings in the capital Skopje proclaim the small Balkan state’s new name, the Republic of North Macedonia — adopted after fierce debate to end a 27-year-long dispute with Greece that barred the path to NATO membership and talks on joining the EU.
But even that constitutional change — adding a “North” to the old name of Macedonia — proved not enough for the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to block talks for both North Macedonia and Albania has angered political leaders here, who are now warning of dangerous consequences in a volatile region.
“We are still disappointed, angry and a little bit frustrated, because we got a promise from the European Union that when we deliver, they would deliver — and they failed,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told POLITICO in a reception room next to his office, with large windows overlooking the city.
The repercussions of the EU’s rebuff last month may be felt not just in North Macedonia and Albania but across the Western Balkans and beyond.
Critics of the decision say the prospect of EU membership is a strong incentive for governments in the region to strengthen the rule of law, promote democratic reforms, reject violent nationalism and cultivate good relations with their neighbors.
Without that incentive, some warn, other powers such as Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf states will hold greater sway in the Western Balkans, and the region could fall back into the nationalism that fueled a series of wars in the 1990s.
Zaev said the Balkans had been a “ticking time bomb” not so long ago and leaders had to work hard to ensure the EU’s decision did not lead to regression.
“We don’t want to allow that kind of historical mistake [to give rise] to nationalism, radicalism, populism, to open again inter-ethnical problems here in my country, but also in the broader region,” he said.
Zaev, a social democrat who came to power in 2017, argued that stabilizing the region is in the EU’s own interests. Otherwise, conflicts could erupt that would directly affect neighboring EU countries such as Greece and Bulgaria.
“After that, France, Germany and other countries will need to spend money to find solutions for conflicts, after losing lives, to rebuild houses. Why not spend money for transformation processes, for better judiciary, for better education?” he said.
The EU’s rebuff has already had one political consequence. Zaev called an early general election for next April, arguing he needs a fresh mandate as his reform plans were first sold to voters as a necessary step to getting the green light from the EU.
Mad at Macron
Macron was not alone in opposing EU membership talks for North Macedonia, a country of around 2 million people, at a summit in Brussels last month, but he was the driving force behind the decision.
The French leader argued the EU must reform itself before adding new members and called for an overhaul of the accession process, which he complained lacks transparency and can’t be reversed — only frozen — if a candidate country changes political course.
Critics of bringing more Western Balkan countries into the EU also point to the region’s problems with organized crime and corruption and its recent violent history.
Macron further antagonized pro-EU leaders in the region last week when he doubled down on his criticism of EU enlargement policy and described Bosnia-Herzegovina as a “time bomb” due to returning jihadists.
Among diplomats in Brussels and politicians in the Balkans, Macron is suspected of using enlargement as part of a bigger power struggle to become the predominant leader in the EU as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s power wanes. Some suspect he may eventually give way on new members in return for concessions on his broader EU reform plans.
“That is in essence a change in the political guard in Brussels. It’s a power game, which is played between the key players behind the scenes and we, as a small country still being outside of that EU infrastructure, should wait and hope for the good messages,” declared North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski.
The way Macron has talked about the region has also rankled with Western Balkan leaders.
“He referred several times to the region of the Western Balkans as [a] neighborhood of the EU. We are not neighbors, we are in Europe,” Pendarovski said in an interview at his presidential villa on the outskirts of Skopje. “Institutionally speaking, we are the countries that have full right to ask for membership, according to the EU treaty signed in 1957.”
Pendarovski, a social democrat like Zaev, will get a chance to make his point to Macron personally when he meets the French president in Paris on Tuesday.
In the interview, Pendarovksi rejected the idea, floated by some officials and analysts, that his country and others in the region should accept some kind of associate membership or other status that would fall short of being a full EU member.
But he said they should be open to changes in the accession process, even if that means countries in the midst of it can be ejected, as proposed by France.
Six Western Balkan countries harbor hopes of EU membership. Serbia and Montenegro have begun talks but are not close to joining. North Macedonia and Albania are officially classed as candidate countries, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are regarded by the EU as potential candidates.
Pendarovski said North Macedonia would continue trying to move closer to EU standards even as the bloc wrangles over the future of enlargement policy. The country’s “Plan B” was “to pursue again the Plan A,” he said.
Zaev struck a similar note. “I say let’s work even harder to make our sun shine more,” he declared.
North Macedonia’s path to this point has not been easy. The previous right-wing government under longtime Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski exacerbated tension with Greece, which had long argued that the name Macedonia implied a territorial claim on a Greek region of the same name and objected to Skopje’s attempts to lay claim to Greek cultural heritage.
Gruevski’s government oversaw a makeover of Skopje — widely derided as kitsch — which featured neoclassical facades on concrete buildings and the erection of scores of statues including a giant representation of Alexander the Great.
As part of its efforts to normalize relations with Athens, the current government dropped Alexander’s name from a highway and the Skopje airport. A plaque was installed at the base of the huge statue, acknowledging that Alexander belonged to “ancient Hellenic history and civilization.” (The plaque has since been vandalized and not replaced.)
Even drain covers in the streets have been scraped to remove the Vergina Sun, a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia.
The political changes that sealed the deal with Greece also left deep scars. The constitutional amendment changing the country’s name just scraped through parliament after months of bitter debate, even after the EU and U.S. applied heavy diplomatic pressure.
Zaev described that period as a “dramatic process.” Despite the EU’s snub, he said, he would stick to the deal with Greece, known as the Prespa agreement.
“It’s a good deal, it’s fair enough for both sides. Implementation must continue, because it brings benefits for both,” he said.
While the main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, fiercely opposed the name change, its vice president, Aleksandar Nikoloski, acknowledged it would be very hard to reverse. Such a move would need a two-thirds majority in parliament and would endanger the country’s forthcoming NATO membership, now being ratified by members of the alliance.
But Nikoloski gave a flavor of the acrimonious election campaign ahead. He accused the government of planning to rig the results, hoping its Western allies will turn a blind eye because it struck the name deal with Greece.
“They will try to cheat on elections and they think that the international community will allow them,” he declared.
At the other end of the spectrum, Irena Sterijovska, a 32-year-old theater producer and leader of the “Colorful Revolution” of protests that helped bring down the previous government, said she’d be back on the streets if the old “regime” returned.
She also warned that if the prospect of EU membership dims further, it will aggravate a major problem, which afflicts much of Eastern Europe — the exodus of young and talented people. Many of her friends are already planning to leave, she said.
“They say, ‘I don’t have five lives to live, I can’t wait anymore, I’m getting out of here now,’” Sterijovska said.