Article by Elena Simidzioski
How it began
North Macedonia is one of the key states waiting for EU-accession as part of the EU’s enlargement plan to the Western Balkans. One can trace back North Macedonia’s initial efforts towards EU-membership to 2005. Yet, North Macedonia’s attempts to join the EU are still unfolding, as the country faces a multiplicity of constraints. To join the EU, it was an indispensable condition for North Macedonia to resolve its longstanding name dispute with Greece (De Munter, 2020). After more than a decade of trying to put the matter to sleep, the dispute was finally concluded with the ‘Prespa Agreement’ (De Munter, 2020).
Where we are now
At present, accession negotiations have been open since 2019 (De Munter, 2020). Currently, Bulgaria challenges the origins of the Macedonian identity and language (Koutsokosta, 2021). Therefore, Bulgaria demands from North Macedonia to accept its language and identity as Bulgarian in origin (Koutsokosta, 2021). These demands are opposed by the Macedonian government and have resulted in significant backlash among the Macedonian population. Importantly, as denoted by Reuters (2021), Bulgaria’s interim government shows no signs of change in its position regarding the contested issue. As such, the veto is likely to stay in place over an extended period. Thus, the question is now, is there a way for North Macedonia to move forward in its EU-accession negotiations. Furthermore, it remains to be seen ehat challenges the prolonged negotiations pose to its domestic affairs?
Consequences of stalled EU accession
In several instance, the European Union has failed to deliver on its promises made to North Macedonia (Zsiros, 2021). This in turn undermines the very credibility of the EU as an organization and allows Euroscepticism to take its toll among politicians and the domestic population (Zsiros, 2021). Despite constantly striving to meet EU demands, and essentially achieving them, the EU has failed to keep its promise to proceed with North Macedonia’s EU-accession and integration. This can be seen in that individual member-states give rise to new disputes with North Macedonia.
The EU-negotiations impasse is increasingly dividing the Macedonian population in two camps: one pro-European integration, and the other opposing such efforts. Whereas pro-European views were prevalent initially, a significant share of the population is starting to provide impetus for nationalist and anti-European rhetorics (Brzozowski & Makszimov, 2021). This can only further impede North Macedonia’s process of EU-accession.
Outflow of human capital
Partly arising from the EU-deadlock, an increasing brain drain is taking place on Macedonian soil (Parrock, J. 2021). The country falls short on several matters, such as educational, economic, and political development. All of these inspire even pro-European youngsters to make a living elsewhere (EWP, 2021). Having lost faith in EU-accession, individuals are incentivized to acquire EU-nationality by securing Bulgarian citizenship, which partly fuels the aforementioned dispute between the countries. Thus, North Macedonia is facing a serious problem with shifting demographics, where the educated labor force decides to migrate. Joining the EU would aid the problem as the implementation of the rule of law and a growing economy due to the free market will diminish major drawbacks for leaving the state.
Is the Sisyphean fate inescapable?
Essentially, after many years of trying to join the European family, Macedonia’s efforts seem like a never-ending cycle of failure and new endeavors to fulfill EU-membership conditions. Yet, is North Macedonia’s journey destined to resemble the myth of Sisyphus in reality? Frankly, two streams of assistance may serve to further pave its way towards EU-membership:
- Financial assistance
As the country faces drainage of human capital and malfunctional state infrastructure, financial assistance can aid the general well-being of the economy and encourage increased government expenditure on state infrastructure, education, and implementing the rule of law (European Western Balkans [EWP], 2020). Financial support may thus help to improve overall rates of completed higher education. Further, one-time grants aid the development of infrastructure, however, recurrent costs cannot be realized which causes infrastructure to erode. It is equally vital to implement the rule of law – political development must take place. State institutions need to undergo substantial reforms as they constitute breeding places for patronage, corruption, and pork-barrel politics. Inconveniently, hardly anything can be realized without assistance, given the country’s GDP of 12.546 billion dollars (World Bank [WB], 2019).
- Political empowerment
North Macedonia’s EU trajectory has been marked by persistent games of power politics. This is illustrated by the dispute with Greece, contesting North Macedonia’s constitutional name (De Munter, 2020). Further, it is illustrated by the current dispute with Bulgaria (Stamouli, 2021). Thus, the country is in need of political empowerment by powerful actors from the Western bloc who need to create a level-playing-field for North Macedonia vis-à-vis its challengers. Only then, North Macedonia can have a strong-enough-backbone to defend its stance in ongoing disputes, and eventually attain its long-desired EU-membership.
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