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France’s EU proposal for North Macedonia teaches us that nationalism shall prevail

North Macedonia has faced numerous challenges on its path to EU membership. Having signed a pivotal agreement with Greece in 2018, it was hoped that Skopje could move towards integration unhindered. However, a recent French-sponsored agreement with Bulgaria suggests that Sofia will now wield disproportionate influence over the country’s future.

August 22, 2022 - Alejandro Esteso Pérez - Articles and Commentary

Flags of North Macedonia and the EU in Brussels. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

After years on standby, North Macedonia and Albania were finally given the green light to start EU accession negotiations on July 19th. The veto exercised by Bulgaria, which had until then effectively blocked Tirana and Skopje’s membership bids, was based on various claims made by Sofia over language and history vis-à-vis North Macedonia. Rounds of bilateral negotiations, a joint commission on historical and educational issues, and even EU attempts at mediation all failed to make any progress on this issue.

A turning point seemed to appear in late June, when France presented a proposal for the resolution of the dispute. Bulgaria soon accepted this plan to move past the stalemate. According to this framework, North Macedonia would change its constitution to acknowledge a Bulgarian minority in the country, protect minority rights and introduce hate speech laws into the criminal code. In addition, Skopje’s EU progress would be contingent on good neighbourly relations with Sofia. The proposal, which was never officially presented to the public, gives Bulgaria the upper hand during any stage of North Macedonia’s accession process. This is because it now effectively has the right to veto any of Skopje’s subsequent steps.

The French proposal was ultimately passed by the Bulgarian and Macedonian parliaments, thus terminating in practical terms Sofia’s three-year blockade. While EU-wide rejoicing welcomed the end to the stalemate as a breakthrough for Skopje, the approval of the proposal is far from good news. In truth, the French framework enshrines nationalism at its core and renders the country hostage to the whims and impulses of Sofia. The framework put forth by France is, as of today, a dead end for North Macedonia.

Prespa was just an illusion

The signing of the Prespa Agreement in 2018 between Greece and North Macedonia, which required Skopje to change its official name in exchange for Athens accepting its NATO bid, was difficult to accept for many. A large campaign was launched to convince the Macedonian public, however, that the painful concessions would reap a tangible benefit in the short and long run. The government stressed that it was therefore worth supporting. Only a few months after overcoming the Greek veto – in spite of domestic criticism and dubious decision-making – EU accession negotiations looked closer than ever.

The incumbent progressive SDSM party was strong and enjoyed popular support. This was especially true after the demise of the illiberal former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in 2017. These factors gave the Social Democrats additional legitimacy to push the deal through. The “Prespa pill” was a hard one to swallow but, as conveyed to the public, a necessary one.

In the aforementioned French framework, none of this hope exists. While the deal struck with Athens would bring palpable change – namely, unhindered progress towards NATO and the EU – there is currently no guarantee that Sofia will not exercise its veto again at any given moment. This, and with good reason, raises various questions. For example, was the Prespa Agreement even a sensible decision given what Sofia would have in store only a few months later? At the same time, would the government back then, and the country for that matter, have undergone the painful and undermining process of bending over backwards to appease an unreasonable EU member state?

No hope where there was before

North Macedonia has been left with a poisoned apple. Unfortunately, the government has decided to bite right into it. From here, two parallel issues – both equally gloomy for Skopje – are starting to appear.

The first concerns the country’s commitment to, yet again, amend its constitution. Though this time it must recognise a Bulgarian minority within its borders. A two-thirds parliamentary majority would be needed for this change. As of today, however, this is simply out of reach. To make things worse, following Bulgaria’s endorsement of the French proposal – in essence suggesting that Sofia is no longer the obstacle nor the culprit – the ball now lies completely in Skopje’s court. The government’s hands are effectively tied. It will not be able to find the necessary majority in the assembly or justify its lack of progress on the accession road. Behind the façade, Bulgaria is still determined to remain the main interfere in the process.

The second issue relates to the painful continuity of a government that has effectively committed political suicide. In an attempt to mimic the tricks that helped sugarcoat the 2018 agreement with Greece, Kovachevski’s executive has done a great and unexplainable disservice to North Macedonia. The expectations and prospects that rendered the Prespa compromise palatable to the public cannot be justified this time, not even among those that voiced their strong support for the deal with Athens. Prespa offered light at the end of the tunnel and clear prospects for progress. The French arrangement simply offers none of this.

As such, the SDSM-led government has lost not only the battle over narrative, but also a large share of the legitimacy it once possessed as the country’s “only real” big pro-European force. As things stand, the Kovachevski government is weakened and consumed by infighting, unable to justify its support for the French proposal against the will of the vast majority of citizens.

A dangerous journey to the past

Against this backdrop, the SDSM’s collapse is more than guaranteed. While the next elections are not due until 2024, the weakness of the current executive might yet again drag North Macedonia into a spiral of political instability and early polls. The downward trend for Kovachevski’s party was already evidenced by the voting results at the local elections less than a year ago. This resulted in the demise of then party leader and former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

This paints a bleak picture for the upcoming months and years, as it is now only a matter of time before the opposition VMRO-DPMNE return to power for the first time since 2017. The party’s hardline nationalism aimed against Athens and Sofia, alongside its association with the politics of former Prime Minister Gruevski – currently a fugitive in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – threatens the country’s progressive EU-oriented path.

Skopje’s enlargement bid is broken and it will take years to repair it, if at all. Through its proposal, France has effectively allowed nationalism and domestic fanaticism to become part of North Macedonia’s EU accession framework. This will only provide a platform for belligerent anti-discourse and the legitimisation of every Bulgarian demand. In a hasty attempt to end the deadlock, Paris has chosen the side of the bully, which it has decided to appease in the search for a quick political win. Of course, this has been done at the expense of the victim, with North Macedonia’s accession prospects now even more unclear.

Alejandro Esteso Pérez is a political scientist and researcher specialising in EU enlargement and Western Balkan politics. He is a KRAF fellow at the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS).

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