On October 2019 the European Council failed again to agree on opening EU accession talks with Western Balkans countries. Macron’s veto has caused disappointment and dejection especially in North Macedonia, which is now standing at a crossroads.
Last week The European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi presented the proposal for a revised accession negotiation methodology adopted by the College of the European Commission . The purpose of the proposal is to re-establish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans, and this has been possible thanks to the Croatian commitment. The country, which took over the bloc’s rotating presidency of the European Council on January 1st 2020, is seeking to revive the EU dream for its neighbourhood countries, and the Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković appears interested in playing an important role in resolving the enlargement deadlock triggered by France last October .
Notwithstanding some positive milestones in 2019, 2020 seems to be the decisive year when it comes to EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. This will be crucial especially for North Macedonia, which is expected to go through several pivotal stages.
A decade-long relationship
More than 10 years have passed since North Macedonia applied for EU membership and obtained the candidate country status on December 2005. On October 2009, the Commission recommended to open accession negotiations with the country, but so far the process of negotiating membership it has not started yet.
Among the regional countries North Macedonia has been the one with the strongest and most advanced relations with the European Union, the first one to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (2001). Since then and for a long time, North Macedonia has been considered a relative success story in the region. Its relationship with the European Union is particularly instructive on how the integration process can improve stability and how strongly it can strengthen security in the region.
On the current Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the EU’s long-term budget, the economical support provided for North Macedonia is estimated around €633 millions. The purpose is to support economic growth and enhance competitiveness, as well as set off the process of strengthening democracy and stability. Furthermore, around €1.25 billion in EU pre-accession funds were granted to the country between 2007 and 2020 . In recognition of the impressive progress made in the past years  the European Commission issued a recommendation in May 2019 to launch negotiations on EU membership.
North Macedonia in 2019
The long-standing name dispute with Greece has been the matter that led the EU integration process and NATO membership to a standstill as the Hellenic Republic has been vetoing the opening of the accession negotiations. But regarding this matter 2019 has been a turning point year.
With the Prespa Agreement, signed in 2018 and ratified by the national Parliaments in 2019, the then FYROM and the Hellenic Republic put the end word to a 30-years standing name dispute, being the renamed country one of the few to change its name in order to be accepted among the international fora. Foreign Minister of Croatia Gordan Grlić Radman said North Macedonia had finally met all the preconditions: “They made a lot of efforts” he said referring to the historic deal, made with the assumption that EU and NATO membership would follow .
The hopes were high that the renamed “Republic of North Macedonia” would finally be able to start both EU and NATO accession talks. Indeed, for the first time since the European Commission recommended opening negotiations ten years ago, Greece lifted its veto and Permanent Representatives of the 29 NATO members signed the Accession Protocol with Skopje. But none constitutional changes were enough: France with its stand-alone veto has denied its approval to open new negotiations at the European Council meeting last October 2019, resulting in the current stalemate that has frozen the talks.
As a deadly consequence of the French non, NM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned and called for snap election to be held on April 12th 2020, making the way for a caretaker government. For Zaev and his SDSM party who came to power in 2017, accession has been the key policy goal of his cabinet, and since then they have poured all of their political efforts into the path for EU membership.
Short-term future for North Macedonia seems to be uncertain yet showing signs of hope. The country opened up to the new Commission’s proposal: “We believe that this revitalized approach will result in a win-win outcome in the coming weeks: opening of accession talks within a renewed process,” North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said. This resumption has been reinforced by the visit of Várhelyi in Skopje last January, who advocated for a speed up of the process. He also added that the implementation of the Prespa Agreement as well as the Good Neighbourhood Agreement will be crucial for the new government.
Undoubtedly, North Macedonia is expected to become the 30th member of NATO early this year, with Spain being the last one remaining to ratify the protocol. The delay was just a consequence of the political crisis in the country, and not of any objection to North Macedonia’s full accession.
Certainly, the most fragile situation is represented by the upcoming elections and North Macedonia is on thin ice. The results will frame the EU perspective of North Macedonia. As Zaev said “The citizens will have the mandate to decide whether we should continue on the path of democratic and European values […] or a dark path leading to isolation, the path of nationalism, divisions and conflicts, the path that leads backwards”.
Latest prediction reports a pair between SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia) and the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) lead by Hristijan Mickoski. A round of surveys published in late December showed the two main parties are close, which turn out in an unpredictable result.
This projection reflects the polarisation of Macedonian society regarding the name change. It has been the key achievement of the outgoing government, but the opposition candidate referred to it as a betrayal, threatening to sign off the agreement in case of victory. The professed benefits of the name change – NATO and EU membership – have not yet materialised and the last in particular remains a long way off. Indeed, critics of the decision say the prospect of EU membership is a strong incentive for governments in the region to strengthen the rule of law and reject violent nationalism. Without that incentive, other powers such as Russia and China will exert their influence in the Western Balkans, and the region could fall back into the nationalism that fueled wars in the 1990s, vanishing all the heavy compromises they have agreed upon.
At the moment the process for North Macedonia remains unopened but Croatia hopes European leaders can reach agreement on reforming the enlargement process in March, prior to the Zagreb summit between the EU and six western Balkan countries expected in May.
 Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/enlargement-methodology_en.pdf
 A strong Europe in a world of challenges, available at: https://eu2020.hr/Uploads/EUPDev/files/priorities-of-the-croatian-presidency.pdf
 North Macedonia on its European path, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/near_factograph_north_macedonia.pdf
 North Macedonia 2019 Report, EC, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/20190529-north-macedonia-report.pdf
 Western Balkans left ‘betrayed’ by EU over membership talks, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/01/western-balkans-left-betrayed-by-eu-over-membership-talks-albania-north-macedonia-croatia