North Macedonia’s success could change the future of Western Balkans

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Valbona Zeneli
Valbona Zeneli

Chair of the Strategic Initiatives Department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views and opinion of the Department of Defense or the Marshall Center.

The success of the Prespa Agreement in resolving the name issue between Athens and Skopje has been the best news story from the Western Balkans in a long time. This was a historical agreement reached in an age of rising nationalism constitutes a major accomplishment and a testament to the importance of diplomacy. As a result, Greece and North Macedonia can move forward in developing their bilateral relationships and North Macedonia can concentrate on pursuing its Euro-Atlantic ambitions. Ultimately, this is an example of a Western Balkan country demonstrating courage and adopting a mature 21st century understanding of the importance of diplomacy.

Perhaps a seemingly petty issue for someone who knows little about the Balkans and the region’s history, this emotionally charged deal between Greece and North Macedonia resolved a 27-year-old name dispute, at the heart of which lay the common questions of modern European history, nationalism, and difficult neighbourhood relations. Its symbolic importance has been enhanced, as it sets the bar for the resolution of future disputes in the Balkans. Serbia and Kosovo should follow suit and work to resolve their long-standing issues for the sake of their citizens and to show they are deserving of a place in the league of Euro-Atlantic nations.

The courageous action taken by the leaders of Athens and Skopje has had the immediate benefit of opening the doors for NATO membership for North Macedonia, placing the country under the umbrella of security in a region that still has pockets of uncertainty. If it maintains its positive glide slope, membership of the EU political-economic alliance is within its grasp.

Expectations were very high that Albania and North Macedonia would finally open accession negotiations with the EU, moving a step closer towards their integration aspirations. Unfortunately, the decision taken at the European Council’s last meeting was not a positive one, having been vetoed by France’s President Emmanuel Macron. The decision had already been postponed in June 2018, as the intra-EU divide on issues such as Brexit and immigration diverted the attention away from enlargement. To be clear, arguments supporting Macron’s decision – strengthening the EU before adding new members and keeping new members states accountable to avoid backsliding – may hold true in the letter of understanding for going forward, but less so in the spirit.

Without a doubt, the EU has been the pre-eminent international actor in the Western Balkans

The consequences of this negative turn on enlargement were immediately felt in the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences appear to outnumber the intended ones.

North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has called for snap elections to be held in April 2020. Considering the pessimism among North Macedonians about the country’s prospects for EU membership, this will be risky, especially given that the two-year focus of the reformer Western-oriented government has been bringing the country closer to the Euro-Atlantic framework.

For Albania, the European Council’s decision will likely diminish chances of solving the long-standing political stalemate. This “historic mistake” – as has been labelled by politicians and analysts – will send negative messages to Serbia and Kosovo, letting them to believe that seeking solutions that require tough sacrifices are not worthwhile, as the EU’s doors will remain closed for the entire region. More importantly, the lack of EU support for the Western Balkans enables leaders in the region to use the EU as a scapegoat for problems instead of focussing on reforms.

Without a doubt, the EU has been the pre-eminent international actor in the Western Balkans, following the promise of the 2003 Thessaloniki Agenda and the 2004 Big Bang enlargement. The ‘historic reunification’ of Europe, adding 10 countries and 75 million citizens into the EU family, created a sense of confidence that the enlargement process would continue and complete state-building and democratisation of the Western Balkans.

The power vacuum created by the previous European Commission’s ‘enlargement moratorium’ unintentionally created a ‘reforms fatigue’ in the Western Balkans

The EU institutions took away lessons from each round of enlargement, but the repercussions of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013 changed the EU’s view of the accession process. The most important lesson learned was that actions are proof positive of the seriousness of a country’s ambitions. As a result, the intermediate stages between association and negotiation are longer, more complex and require the use of conditionality as a primary tool to measure governments’ commitment.

Too often lost in the noise of political discourse, the EU’s efforts in fostering the rule of law and good governance in the Western Balkans has been considerable. However, after dedicating funds and employing positive messaging, serious gains in terms of democratic consolidation and economic development have fallen far short of any expectations.

The power vacuum created by the previous European Commission’s ‘enlargement moratorium’ unintentionally created a ‘reforms fatigue’ in the Western Balkans. This point is driven home by the fact that countries in the region have lost ground across the board on improving the rule of law, good governance, establishing strong institutions, ensuring media freedoms, and democratic accountability. This, in turn, reduced the relevance of real reformers and opened a manoeuvring space for populists who declaratively continue to promote the European idea without changing their usual political habits.

Populists find it easy to scapegoat the EU and shape the narratives to convince people that the EU’s enlargement fatigue is to blame for the lack of reforms. As a result, the institutional and economic gap between the Western Balkans and the EU has widened. Today, the average income levels in the Western Balkans are equal to only 14% of the EU average income – not much different to 2003, when the European perspective was offered to the region, and the average regional income was 12% of that of the EU.

Only a determined EU integration process will keep the Western Balkans on track—for the benefit of its citizens, its leaders, and the European community

The region’s unfulfilled reform agendas have presented authoritarian powers including Russia, China, Turkey and several Gulf States with opportunities to exert influence, promote frictions and encourage fragmentation. Russia has increased its presence in the region as an opportunistic spoiler; there is reason to believe they see their role as part of a bigger geopolitical game of meddling with the West. The fact that Moscow invited the countries of the Western Balkans to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union immediately after the negative decision of the EU Council, should not be overlooked. And then there is China, peddling its dubious financial and economic deals to gain economic and geopolitical control in the region.

Even though the enlargement momentum has been replaced by ‘enlargement fatigue’, a visionary and pragmatic calculation of benefits for both sides should be the rational base for a swift revitalisation of the enlargement process for the Western Balkans. The debate both in the EU member states and candidate countries should focus not on enlargement per se, but on the unification of Europe. In the new era of great power competition, the Western Balkans should no longer be considered the EU’s backyard, but rather its front yard.

Only a determined EU integration process will keep the Western Balkans on track—for the benefit of its citizens, its leaders, and the European community. Dealing seriously with questions of transparency, rule of law and accountability cannot be ignored. The prospect of opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia should be encouraged in Brussels not only to offer the much-deserved EU perspective to the citizenry in the region, but also as a proviso of holding leadership in the Western Balkans accountable for rule of law, transparency, and good governance.

The EU blame game is not an option. This is not about lowering the EU’s standards but about raising the standards and aspirations of the Western Balkans. This said, it would be a strong signal of solidarity with the region and support for reformers if the EU recognised the forward-leaning leaders and encouraged them to keep the enlargement process moving forward.

Such an approach is needed in the Western Balkans. Promoting EU policies in the region should remain adamant about meeting fundamental political, economic and social transformation requirements is at the heart of any agreement.

The only unintended positive consequence of the latest negative decision is that the people’s dissatisfaction with the decision indicates that there is still a strong and resilient desire to be part of the West. People see that their future will be better only if their countries adopt true government models based on the democratic values and norms of the transatlantic community.

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