North Macedonia has overcome the obstacles to begin its EU accession process; however, the road ahead is not likely to be smooth.
North Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004 and got accepted in December 2005. Since then, the country has been waiting for the EU to begin its accession process. Initially, North Macedonia’s bid was blocked by Greece due to contesting claims over the name “Macedonia.” In 2018, the dispute was resolved when the countries agreed to the Prespa Agreement, and the erstwhile “Republic of Macedonia” became “North Macedonia.” In 2019, France blocked North Macedonia’s accession, arguing that the EU’s accession structure could not support further expansion. In 2019, Bulgaria too issued a veto against North Macedonia’s accession citing historical disputes.
Finally, in March 2020, the European Council endorsed the decision to open accession negations. On July 9, 2022, after signing a bilateral protocol with Bulgaria, the opening phase of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations were started. However, even after overcoming these obstacles, North Macedonia might face the following three problems in its EU journey.
North Macedonia’s Bulgaria problem
North Macedonia has a long-standing dispute with Bulgaria. The dispute between the two countries is about contesting claims to a shared history. Bulgaria’s primary demands include the recognition of the Bulgarians in North Macedonia as a constitutional minority and the acceptance that the North Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. In June, the EU presented both countries with the “European compromise” or the “French Proposal” to end the dispute. The proposal requires North Macedonia to recognize Bulgarian as an official language, change the constitution to acknowledge Bulgarians as minorities, protect minority rights, change textbooks with negative references to Bulgaria and introduce hate speech into the criminal code.
Both countries agreed to the French proposal, amidst week-long protests in North Macedonia and a governmental collapse in Bulgaria. However, while the deal requires both countries to commit to some changes to facilitate cooperation, the deal comes across as favouring Bulgaria. North Macedonia has to concede more changes compared to Bulgaria to adhere to the terms of the French Proposal.
Moreover, since the EU accession process is such that it requires unanimous approval from all its members at every step of the way, if North Macedonia fails to adopt the changes as per the proposal, Bulgaria can squash its EU journey, midway.
North Macedonia’s internal problem
Besides the bilateral problem with Bulgaria, North Macedonia has an internal problem. Internally, there is opposition in the country to the terms of the French proposal, presented by the EU as a compromise to solve the dispute with Bulgaria.
President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski supported the EU proposal, hailing it as a reasonable compromise and the proposal was passed by the Parliament. However, the French proposal triggered wide protests in the country, claiming that the proposal, which was the country’s negotiation framework to the EU, leads to the “bulgarization” of North Macedonia.
The center-right, main opposition party, the VMRO-DPMNE, supported and organized some of these protests, which continued even after the proposal was approved. The VMRO-DPMNE also boycotted the voting, which was approved by 68 of the 120-member North Macedonian parliament. As a result of the approval, North Macedonia’s government risks being unpopular not only with the voters but also in parliament. The government does not have a two-thirds majority in the parliament to alter the constitution as per the French proposal.
North Macedonia’s EU problem
Besides the bilateral and domestic problems, North Macedonia also has a specific EU challenge. North Macedonia faces issues with corruption and human rights. The 2021 European Commission report on North Macedonia, says that the country is moderately prepared for most of its markers like democracy, judicial system, state administration, economy, protection of fundamental rights, and freedom of expression.
On Sept. 16, an explanatory screening meeting was organised for delegations from Albania and North Macedonia. They were informed about the updates and new legislation. Bilateral screening will hence be conducted to access every chapter of the accession process. Given the rigorous and intense screening process for the negotiating chapters, North Macedonia will have to improve its internal governance manifold to meet the high standards required by the EU.
To conclude, North Macedonia has taken the first step towards full EU membership with the backing of the French Proposal. However, due to their lingering bilateral issues with Bulgaria, internal unrest, and EU’s high standards, North Macedonia might face further issues to install the proposed changes and get approval for their negotiating chapters. Moreover, until the changes to their constitution are made to accommodate the terms of the proposal, the negotiating process will not begin. The EU will also have to balance between countries pushing for speedy accession of Ukraine and Moldova to the EU and the Western Balkan countries like North Macedonia and Albania who have been waiting for many years. Thus, North Macedonia’s EU woes are far from over.
[Photo by Влада на Република Северна Македонија, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Rishma Banerjee is a Research Assistant in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.