By Jacob L. Shapiro
The announcement of the end of the 27-year Greece-Macedonia name spat appears to have been premature. Domestic opposition to the deal has been pronounced in both countries, but the governments pushed forward because the possibility of Macedonia joining the EU and NATO – processes held up by the name dispute – was considered worth the price of compromise. Everything seemed to be going fine until Tuesday, when the EU General Affairs Council decided it would delay a decision on EU accession for Macedonia – as well as its neighbor Albania – until June 2019 at the earliest. (Albania’s own accession process has gotten wrapped up in the name issue as a result of Albania’s proximity to Macedonia and the fact that a quarter of Macedonia’s population is ethnically Albanian.)
The news was a major letdown for all the governments involved and a serious blow to the viability of the Greece-Macedonia compromise, which stipulated that Macedonia would be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia, distinguishing itself from the northern Greek region of the same name. For Skopje, it means potentially losing out on the economic benefits of joining the bloc; for Athens, it jeopardizes the security benefits that would come from Macedonia and Albania’s allegiance. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias warned on Monday that Greek-Macedonian relations might sour if the EU turned its back on Macedonia and Albania. Indeed, his concerns were warranted. A Greek member of parliament resigned from the governing coalition on Tuesday – the second such resignation in June – to protest the name compromise, bringing the Tsipras coalition down to a razor-thin majority of just 152 seats out of 300. Considering that polls have consistently shown that roughly 70 percent of Greeks oppose the compromise, and that each step of the negotiating process has set off large, occasionally violent protests in Greece, it is unclear if this Greek government can hold the line until mid-2019.
In Macedonia, President Gjorge Ivanov on Tuesday refused to sign the deal, which he described as “criminal.” Ivanov has also criticized Albania in recent months for meddling in his country’s politics. This isn’t quite the deal breaker it seems – approval by a simple majority of parliament would overrule the president’s veto, and lawmakers already passed the agreement once this month in a 69-40 vote. Yet the first vote occurred when EU and NATO accession were considered a sure thing if the deal was concluded. Whether Macedonia’s parliament votes again next week or next month, lawmakers will be voting without any assurance that they will get what they thought was the other end of the bargain. Macedonia has seen large protests over the compromise as well, and lawmakers may think twice knowing that they will have little to show for their acquiescence.
That said, the EU has not completely shut the door on Macedonia and Albania. Germany reluctantly supported their accession, but France, the Netherlands and Denmark have staunchly opposed EU expansion into the Balkans. French President Emmanuel Macron has said internal EU reforms should come first, though the greater concern may be what a new round of migration into Western Europe would do to anti-immigrant sentiment there. The opposing sides settled on a compromise Tuesday whereby the General Affairs Council stopped short of outright rejection. Instead, the EU laid out a path for future accession talks – contingent on Albania and Macedonia making progress on EU reforms. The European Commission will monitor the progress of both governments and will produce a report sometime in 2019 that will form the basis of a decision by the end of that year.
From Albania and Macedonia’s perspectives, however, this bureaucratic hairsplitting is little more than a bait and switch. The European Commission had already recommended in April launching accession talks with both countries. Both countries – especially Macedonia – made sacrifices to remove potential roadblocks to EU membership on the basis of that recommendation. Now, the EU has decided that corruption, freedom of expression and rule of law issues must also be addressed before talks can begin – all issues on which progress is to a large extent subjective. This is the type of diplomatic doublespeak that could be used to keep Macedonia and Albania on ice indefinitely, if that is what France and its allies continue to want.
The governments in Greece, Macedonia and Albania have staked their credibility on this name compromise, Macedonia and Albania’s EU accession, and in Macedonia’s case, NATO accession. Their saving grace might be NATO. The alliance, which welcomed Albania in 2009 and neighboring Montenegro in 2017, has little reason to put stumbling blocks on the path of Macedonian membership. If NATO can offer unambiguous support for Macedonia during its summit July 11-12, it might patch up some of the disappointment from the EU decision. This does not solve the long-term issue of whether the EU will accept Macedonia and Albania, but it may buy those governments time until the name compromise can be implemented and their political environments stabilize – assuming the governments in Athens and Skopje make it that far.
This could yet turn into a European success story. Resolution of the Greece-Macedonia name dispute would end a long-running and potentially violent disagreement in Europe’s most unstable region. Had it happened now, it would have come on the heels of the end of eight years of EU financial assistance to Greece last week. Bringing Greece back from the brink of leaving the EU without having to compromise on its austerity approach can be counted as a major EU accomplishment. Now both risk being overshadowed, and the possibility of a settlement in the name dispute is far more uncertain than it was earlier in the week because of the EU’s inability to reach consensus. The difference between this and prior episodes in EU politics is that this directly affects the Balkans, where latent enmities that date back centuries thrive when governments falter.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the status of Albania’s membership in NATO. Albania joined the alliance in 2009.