EU Adrift in the West Balkans

Photo: European Commission President Charles Michel meets Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev. Credit: European Council
Photo: European Commission President Charles Michel meets Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev. Credit: European Council

The longer the EU neglects to establish a clear, concise, and deliberate strategy towards the Western Balkans, the more it risks alienating North Macedonia and other Western Balkan countries.

Three decades have passed since the people known as Macedonians gained independence from the ruins of Yugoslavia and 18 years since they were recognized as a potential candidate for European Union (EU) membership.

There have been advances during this time. The country now known (rather unwillingly) as North Macedonia is a NATO member and has made positive economic progress. But the country’s nationalistic neighbors have unrelentingly made life difficult, and it now seems that some in the EU (led by the EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi) are willing to leave it behind rather than tackle the root causes of its geopolitical problems.

Macedonians can be forgiven for some bafflement at the behavior of their neighbors. From the outset, Greece argued that any country called Macedonia would have an implied claim on its territory. The dispute lasted 27 years and was finally resolved only in 2019, when the country adopted the new name.

But that was far from the end of the matter. Bulgaria likewise raised objections over its language and other historical claims, and slowed North Macedonian EU negotiations to a crawl. It is far from the first time the EU has proved unable to overcome objections from a single member.

Várhelyi suggested that the EU was considering moving forward EU membership talks with Albania, as negotiations stalled with North Macedonia. This statement caused confusion and shock through the Western Balkans as the two membership bids had previously been linked. Just last June the European Council agreed to open the latest round of accession talks with both countries.

Thereafter, various EU officials and countries walked back his comments, but though the lack of clarity and clear messaging from the EU brought to the surface what many in the Western Balkans have been thinking: the EU’s strategy towards the region is ambiguous, unclear and at worst, nonexistent.

In 2005, Macedonia was granted candidate status for EU accession after addressing inter-ethnic tensions between its Macedonian and Albanian population and implementing democratic reforms. The current government under Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has worked hard on reviving stalled Euro-Atlantic integration and has made significant progress, particularly through the 2018 Prespa Agreement with Greece which resolved the issue of the country’s name and finally allowed the shedding of the horrible name, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Following the agreement, Macedonia changed its constitutional name to North Macedonia, and Greece lifted its blockade on the country, paving the way for the country’s NATO accession in March 2020. Two years later, North Macedonia is now being asked to compromise its identity for the sake of another nationalist government, this time to the east rather than the south. There was hope when Bulgaria’s government collapsed last month that the country would give up on its outrageous demands, but the current government led by Stefan Janev doubled down that they will not change its stance on blocking accession talks with North Macedonia in a dispute over language and identity. (It was reported Bulgaria told other EU members that: “The official language used in today’s Republic of North Macedonia can be only considered as a written regional norm of the Bulgarian language.”)

The EU’s hope for another Prespa-like agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria are naïve. Prime Minister Zaev has stated: “Macedonian identity, in addition to being a matter of pride, is also a matter of fact, science, tradition and national symbol of our people. It is not and will not be the subject of negotiations.”

In response, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called on the European Union to maintain its commitment to the countries of the Western Balkans and left them with the warning: “If we are not careful, we will lose the Western Balkans.” Other member states have expressed similar sentiments, Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg, the Czech Republic’s Jakub Kulhánek, and Slovenia’s Anže Loger expressed their displeasure with Bulgaria and argued that is “not fair” for another EU member state to condition the process on such issues.

Their statements suggest that the stakes are high as Bulgaria’s North Macedonia rift will have deeper implications for the EU. By allowing a precedent whereby a single member state like Bulgaria or Greece can hold up entry into the EU, especially by demanding that a country alter its identity, sends a troubling message to other would-be EU members including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. The longer the EU neglects to establish a clear, concise, and deliberate strategy towards the Western Balkans, the more it risks alienating North Macedonia and other Western Balkan countries. And that allows other less benign countries, like China and Russia, to fill the gap.

June 11, 2021