The word “historic” has been repeated this Tuesday time after time in Brussels during the opening of negotiations for the accession to the EU of Albania and North Macedonia, two countries parked for years in the lobby of the club without even giving them the opportunity to whether or not to show your credentials for entry. Finally, the Twenty-seven have achieved the necessary unanimity to start the process after Bulgaria settled its latest differences with North Macedonia. Brussels hopes that the negotiation with both candidates will give a boost to the enlargement in the Western Balkans, a delicate and vulnerable area, especially in the context of the war against Ukraine.
“Undoubtedly, we are at a crossroads in history and we are witnessing changes in our geostrategic scenario, of which you are a part”, said the Vice President of the European Commission and High Representative for Foreign Policy of the EU, Josep Borrell, to the start of the intergovernmental conferences that have consecutively marked the opening of negotiations with Skopje and Tirana. “We can only move forward together, by integrating the Western Balkans into the EU. Without your countries we will not be complete”, he added. North Macedonia was recognized as an official candidate for entry in 2005 and Albania in 2014, but the opening of negotiations (the first in eight years) did not come until this Tuesday.
The intergovernmental conferences have been attended by the Macedonian Prime Minister, Dimitar Kovacevski, and the Albanian, Edi Rama. The European delegation was chaired by Jan Lipavsky, Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, the country that chairs the Council of the EU this semester. The subsequent press conferences have been much calmer than that of the EU summit with the Balkans at the end of June, when Kovacevski, Rama and the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, attacked the European partners and, above all, against Bulgaria, which vetoed the opening of negotiations due to an identity and linguistic conflict with North Macedonia.
The dispute has been resolved thanks to the mediation of France, which held the European presidency last semester. Sofia has lifted her foot from the brake in exchange for Skopje amending its Constitution again. This time, to include ethnic Bulgarians (about 3,500 in a country of 1.8 million inhabitants) among the recognized constitutive groups of the state. She will also review the account in her textbooks of the occupation by Bulgaria (a Nazi ally) of present-day North Macedonia during World War II.
One of the problems with the Paris-forged deal is that it has a kick-forward point. Negotiations will only begin when the constitutional amendment is approved, which requires the support of two-thirds of deputies. A majority that the government led by the Social Democrats does not have. An initiative to submit the agreement to a referendum is also gaining strength.
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The general feeling among the Balkan candidates to join the EU is that the lack of political will condemns them to advance at a snail’s pace. In eight years of negotiations, Serbia has barely closed two of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire and Montenegro, three. But the case of Skopje is a particular obstacle course.
The then provisionally named Old Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ran in 2004 and received candidate status a year later. Greece blocked its entry until then Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras signed a historic agreement on the shores of Lake Prespa in 2018, ending a 27-year conflict over the name of the country. Zaev risked his position to carry out a constitutional reform by which the country was renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.
He then ran into the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who ended up forcing a toughening of the accession criteria. Once the doubts of Paris were resolved, Skopje found himself with a new fence to jump: Sofia used the veto due to the differences over the Bulgarian roots of the Macedonian nation and language before its creation, in 1944, as a republic within the now extinct Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia.
It was not unheard of for a Member State to take advantage of its membership of the EU to address bilateral conflicts from a position of strength with a country – generally a neighbor – that aspires to membership. France did it with Spain for the agricultural issue in the eighties or Slovenia in 2009 when it stopped Croatia’s first attempt to enter the EU due to the territorial conflict they still have over the Bay of Pirán. Zagreb ended up becoming the last country to join the EU in 2013, when the appetite for enlargement was already beginning to disappear.
What is new, in this case, is that it is “the first time in an accession process that the European Union supports demands on the identity of a candidate by a Member State (Bulgaria) and integrates them into the accession criteria. ”, defends by email Malinka Jordanova, analyst and former director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje specializing in the accession process.
“The French proposal is not a compromise agreement, it is a sweetened blackmail”, says Jordanova, who regrets that the pact has “increased the division and the crisis” in the country and “disheartened the most pro-European actors”, both in Macedonia of the North as in the rest of the Balkans that do not belong to the EU: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo, recognized as a State by all the EU countries, except five, among which is Spain.
The negotiating kick-off has been received differently in the two countries. Albania – which had been held hostage by the Bulgarian veto and was considering stepping down and starting negotiations alone – breathes a sigh of relief, although aware that effective income is still many years away, if it comes. By contrast, in North Macedonia, reactions range from outrage to resignation. Skopje has been the scene in recent weeks of demonstrations against the pact and the session in which it was approved (with 68 yeses among 120 deputies) was very angry, with shouts, banners such as “Ultimatum, no, thank you” and even a deputy with a vuvuzela. MPs from the nationalist opposition party Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity were absent from the vote.
Aware of this, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, warned Kovacevski at the press conference on Tuesday that it will be necessary to have all the parties, including civil society. “We need everyone in North Macedonia to work for the country and for its entry into the EU,” he said.
Várhelyi has addressed a similar request to Rama. And he has reminded both leaders that national consensus is an essential condition to bring about a negotiation that will transform their countries as it progresses. In return, he has promised, the reforms undertaken to adapt to EU legislation will have “an enormous and positive impact on society, on the economy and will bring immediate benefits to citizens”.
The two countries had been waiting for years for this step towards joining a club that has 27 members, two of which – Slovenia and Croatia – were part of Yugoslavia, as was North Macedonia.
The impatience of the Balkan countries has been spurred on by Ukraine, a country that applied for membership after the Russian invasion on February 24 and in just three months has been recognized as a candidate along with Moldova. The EU’s interest in completing its map has also increased given the risk that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will destabilize the area thanks, above all, to his good relations with Serbia and with the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska.
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