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North Macedonia’s bumpy road to the EU

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16 June 2020
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North Macedonia’s bumpy road to the EU - © Unplash/Slavcho Malezanov

In March 2020, the General Affairs Council decided to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and endorsed the Commission Communication on a revised methodology. The decision was accepted by members of the European Council and was highly welcomed among the member states and supporters of the EU enlargement process. In the unfavourable conditions because of the global pandemic caused by Covid-19, the decision although positive, didn’t get sufficient attention and was only accepted with caution. Not only because of the general preoccupancy the abovementioned concerns but also because the EU accession process for North Macedonia proved to be more uncertain than it usual is for the other candidate countries. 

The negotiation framework is expected to be presented by the EU Commission in June 2020, the enlargement package in the autumn, and hopefully the first chapter of the Acquis to be opened by the end of the year within the German presidency. However, a new obstacle seems to be in the way that once again could stop the country and jeopardise the EU trajectory before it has even started. After the setting, the issue with one neighbour (i.e. Greece), the other neighbour (Bulgaria) appears to have an issue with the country‘s official language or objects to it being used in the EU official documents due to unresolved differences over the historical questions tackling national identity (North Macedonia and Bulgaria in 2017 signed the Treaty on Friendship, Good Neighbourly Relations, and Cooperation and set a Commission that should deal with the historical narratives). The new enlargement methodology “Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans” from 2020, that will be applied in the case of North Macedonia should introduce bigger predictability of the process based on stronger political steering, together with positive and negative conditionality. In the negotiation process, the chapters will be grouped into clusters and opened in that manner, whereas the “Fundamentals” will be the first to open and the last to be closed. The process becomes more political and the member states will have a bigger say. The chapters which had already been closed can be opened again, meaning negotiations can go back and forth, stop, and start again until they are finally closed. 

There is huge in-country support for EU integration (approximately 74% of the population supports the process) but it looks like that each time the country gets close to the EU, the conditions or the circumstances change. Having been long in the EU waiting room, North Macedonia (with more than 15 years candidate status and over 10 recommendations for starting the negotiations) struggles with internal turmoil and external pressures that regularly are redirecting a path that only occasionally seems to be straight. 

The Republic of North Macedonia became an independent state after the dissolution of SFRY, in 1991. The country’s main tendency is to reach the democratic standards; to establish the rule of law, to keep the peace and stability and to increase the economic growth. The political system tends to be democratic and it is open towards EU perspectives. After the separation from the Federation, North Macedonia had a favourable condition in respect to democracy and security compared to the bloody secession conflicts in its neighbouring countries and has long been considered as a prime example of stability and interethnic coexistence. In spring 2001, North Macedonia became the first country in SEE to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU and in 2005 the country gained the status of an EU candidate country. However, despite the EU Commission’s positive assessment for the start of the EU negotiations, the country faced a blockade in the European Council by neighbouring Greece due to the name issue. This was repeated many times until it became clear that without a change of the constitutional name, despite all of the reform processes and related conditionality, an EU perspective remains far away. In opposition with the popular will expressed in a consultative referendum (only 31% were for a change) and with a democratic defect of the instigated methods, the country’s constitutional name was changed.

The EU and the governing political elites anticipated that the change will move North Macedonia towards EU integration and secure the stability of the region (additionally with its integration in NATO). The Prespa Agreement from 2018 overcome the name differences and pushed the process further. Though not for long. The initial enthusiasm was again confronted with a new obstacle, namely the quest of several EU member states (France and the Netherlands) for changes to the enlargement methodology towards a more credible process. Concerning the EU enlargement policy, the membership to the Community is open to all countries with a democratically elected government. The Copenhagen criteria praise the stability of the institutions, the existence of democracy, rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities and set them as necessary standards. EU conditionality is at the heart of EU enlargement and guarantees rewards upon fulfilling the prescribed requirements of which membership is the utmost. The credibility of the process depends not only on strict conditionality rules but also on consistency or utilisation of the same standards. 

Due to the envisaged methodological changes, and the probable new demands that are representative of the region’s complex history, it is questionable if a clear outcome can ever be expected. For now, there are only hopes that reason will prevail, and North Macedonia will finally be able to navigate a less bumpy road towards the EU.

Natalija Shikova is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at the International Balkan University (North Macedonia). Her primary areas of interest are International law and EU law. Except for the academics, she has experience as a practitioner and expert in various national and international projects related to developing the administrative capacities and EU integration. She likes challenges, but since the Europeanization proved to be a long-lasting process, to stay in shape, she practices hiking and jigsaw puzzle solving.

 

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