Serbia and Montenegro are frequently labelled as ‘frontrunners’ among the Western Balkan countries when it comes to EU enlargement, as they are currently the only ones that have opened their EU accession negotiations. However, they are likely to have one more contender for the frontrunner title, as there is another country which made the largest leap forward among all Western Balkan countries when it comes to EU enlargement in the last few years: North Macedonia.
The country not only successfully resolved the bilateral disputes which were preventing its formal progress on the Euro-Atlantic path, but it has made huge improvements when it comes to the state of democracy, as the regime that brought us the term ‘state capture’ was successfully replaced by a reformist government in 2017.
The landlocked country was actually the first among those in the region to be granted EU candidate status, already in 2005, and it was only the name dispute with its southern neighbour Greece, and to a lesser extent the bilateral dispute with Bulgaria, which prevented the country from making any further headway towards membership in NATO and the EU for more than a decade.
With major bilateral disputes out of the way and the NATO accession process already in progress, North Macedonia now seems poised to join Serbia and Montenegro in launching EU accession negotiations. It remains to be seen, however, whether EU member states will recognize the importance of this phenomenon and open the accession negotiations this June.
How did North Macedonia become a success story?
Only two years ago, Macedonia was a country in a deep political crisis, blocked on its Euro-Atlantic path by its neighbours and facing an ever-present risk of internal ethnic conflict.
With its Euro-Atlantic aspirations thwarted by bilateral disputes with Greece and Bulgaria, and strong authoritarian tendencies largely ignored by the European Union, Macedonia was perhaps a symbol of failed hopes and cynicism about EU enlargement policy in the region, as the once-frontrunner moved further away from its membership goal while the EU idly watched, failing to condemn a quite noticeable democratic decline in the candidate country until the political crisis reached a boiling point.
The government of Zoran Zaev, formed in 2017 by the social-democratic SDSM and several ethnic-Albanian parties after a major constitutional crisis and violent attempts to prevent regime change, quickly made huge steps forward regarding the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the country.
In little more than a year, Macedonia managed to reach major bilateral agreements with both of its EU neighbours, first the Friendship Agreement with Bulgaria in August 2017 and then the now-historic Prespa Agreement with Greece in June 2018. The Prespa Agreement resolved the almost three-decade dispute Macedonia had had with Greece over its name, and finally opened the possibility for the candidate country to move forward on its Euro-Atlantic path.
After the agreement was ratified in both parliaments at the beginning of 2019 and Greece ratified the NATO accession protocol of its southern neighbour, Macedonia officially changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Thus North Macedonia not only represents an example of a successful regime change from an increasingly authoritarian government, but the best possible demonstration of the preached ‘good neighbourly relations’ as a prerequisite for EU membership.
Decision of the European Council in June 2019 of great importance
This June, the European Council will decide whether to open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia. This will be a crucial moment not just for the recently renamed country, but also for the entire Western Balkans. The reasons for this are very simple.
First, as the ‘good student’ in the Western Balkans, North Macedonia surely deserves a reward for its efforts. Its government went so far as to change the country’s constitutional name – a very unpopular and bold move – in order to unblock its EU path. Leaving the country empty-handed after such a major achievement would therefore be a severe blow.
Second, closing the door on North Macedonia after such major steps in resolving bilateral disputes would send a very dangerous message for other Western Balkan EU-hopefuls. Namely, that concessions for the sake of EU membership are not worth it, and that there is actually no genuine resolve among the member states for accepting new members from the region. Serbia and Kosovo in particular are watching closely what happens with their southern neighbour.
Opening accession negotiations does not mean that a country is ready for membership, but only that it is ready to begin a very long and demanding process of negotiations. After everything the North Macedonian government did in the last couple of years, it certainly does deserve the green light. Failure by EU member states to realize this might mean paying a high price for short-sightedness further down the road, in North Macedonia and beyond.