North Macedonia is set to hold new elections on April 12th, a full eight months earlier than expected. Not long after the European Union decided to put accession talks for the newly-renamed nation on hold, North Macedonia’s parliament made a decision to dissolve itself. The vote took place just after the Social Democrats narrowly succeeded in passing two new laws on prosecution and defence, aimed at bringing the country into closer alignment with EU and NATO norms.
The upcoming elections are being likened to a referendum on the pro-EU stance of the ruling Social Democrats and former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who resigned last month in the face of the union’s refusal to set a date for accession talks. Since then, the country has been ruled by an interim government, led by Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski, who is now being tasked with ensuring conditions for a free and fair vote.
“I believe that all the decisions we have made in this parliament were in the interest of our citizens”, said speaker Talat Xhaferi to the last session of the 120-seat parliament on February 16th.
Before its dissolution, parliament unanimously backed entering NATO. “By joining this alliance, we are not simply joining an international organisation”, said North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski prior to the vote. “Membership of the world’s most powerful military-political alliance is a privilege, but also a huge responsibility.” The vote is “a major step in completing Macedonian statehood and a (guarantee) for our territorial integrity and sovereignty,” added Pendarovski.
But joining NATO hinges upon the fragile Prespes Agreement, and its failure would give a major boost to eurosceptic and nationalist parties in both Greece and North Macedonia. Just last month, a member of the North Macedonian caretaker cabinet, Labour and Social Policy Minister Rashela Mizrahi, was dismissed from her post after refusing to abide by the name change at two major news conferences. Spasovski argued that Mizrahi “deliberately and consciously breached the laws and constitution,” and thereby “endangered” North Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic future.
In response, Mizrahi blamed her predecessor for not changing the country’s signage, but also referred to the Prespes Agreement as an “injustice” – a move backed by the country’s conservative opposition, the VMRO-DPMNE party.
“We should thank the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs for not changing the board and recognising deeply that this is the Republic of Macedonia and this is the Macedonian people,” she added.
In response, North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said “The state will not allow such infantilism. The Labour and Social Policy Ministry is not her private apartment, just as the constitution is not merely a piece of paper. The Minister may not like the constitution or the Prespa treaty, but that does not entitle her to not apply it. Without the principle of constitutionality and legality, nothing will be left of the state.”
Greece sent a verbal note of protest to North Macedonia for the breach of the Prespes Agreement by the now-ousted minister.
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The Stakes Remain High
Once North Macedonia changed its name, Greece lifted the veto on its Balkan neighbour joining the EU and NATO. In a 153-140 vote taken in February of last year, Greek lawmakers backed the protocol that must still be approved by all the other NATO members. “I would like to again welcome North Macedonia, a country that is friendly toward Greece, a country that must be a supporter – and not an opponent – of our efforts to establish safety, stability, and cooperation in the wider region”, said former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras last year, after the vote was called. Meanwhile, only Spain has yet to ratify its accession, and is expected to do so by mid-March.
In October 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron halted EU accession plans when he refused to let talks begin despite increased European concern over Chinese and Russian interference in the Balkans.
Macron also rejected opening accession discussions with other eastern European states like Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania. At the time, Macron’s office cited concern over the cumbersome accession process, as well as interest in tackling corruption and integration within EU borders before proceeding with further enlargement. Apprehension over the rule of law and combatting corruption in would-be future states was also noted, something France believes the EU rushed through when bringing Romania and Bulgaria into the bloc in 2007. The fact that these challenges came about during a time when the EU is facing a resurgent Russia and China, Brexit, migration challenges, and global climate change, only contributes to French reticence.
At the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, then-President of the commission, called Macron’s stance a “grave, historic error”, and top EU enlargement negotiator Johannes Hahn said the blockage was “not a moment of glory for Europe”. Even so, the European Commission recently submitted a stricter and reversible EU accession procedure, including the ability to freeze funds and reset negotiations, in order to meet France’s demands for reform ahead of a summit on the Balkans this May.
Some Member States, however, are concerned that delaying enlargement only offers ammunition to those who butt heads with the region. North Macedonia’s name change was a clear signal of alignment with NATO and the EU. But if tangible results don’t soon materialise, the nation and its neighbours could decide to swing back to Russian and Chinese influence, which comes with almost-immediate material benefits thanks to outreach programmes like the Belt and Road Initiative.
To that end, Macron recently hinted that French opposition to Albania and North Macedonia’s EU bids might be coming to an end. “We are all awaiting a report from the European Commission in March on the two countries”, the French President said at the annual Munich security conference. “We have to see what the Commission is going to say about the state of the expected progress”, adding that “if the results are positive and confidence is established, we then should be able to open negotiations”. Though accession talks could begin as early as March 2019, negotiations for the EU’s enlargement will take several years.
And Macron couldn’t resist swiping at the blame that seems to have landed at his feet for the decision: “I salute the great courage which consists in hiding behind France when there is a disagreement but I can tell you that several states were against the opening of negotiations with Macedonia and Albania”, he said — not referring to Denmark and the Netherlands, who had allied with his stance in October to postpone enlargement, by name.
But the French President still urged his fellow government leaders to remember that expansion is not the answer to all the union’s problems. Of concern is that a larger EU means a larger budget, something the bloc’s northern members generally oppose. “[If] it doesn’t work at 27 (EU members) so do you think it will work if we’re 32 or 33? We are not coherent. The implicit strategy is that we think of Europe as a big market…but not a political power with collective preferences and a minimum of convergence”, Macron stated.
North Macedonia and Albania have promised to deliver on needed reforms in time, said the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi. Speaking at a think tank event, Varhelyi stated, “I am very encouraged by my visits to both countries. They do not give up on reforms…and you will see that they will deliver, and if they do that, you can be confident that there should be an opening of negotiations.”
“There is nothing but membership on offer”, he added.