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  • Schuyler Beltrami

North Macedonia Begins Accession Talks to Join the EU

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

The nation of North Macedonia, located in the southern Balkans region of Europe, has formally begun the process of accession to the European Union. The process, which was started back in 2000, has been made difficult by the nation’s relations with two of its neighbors, Greece and Bulgaria. Now a French-backed deal between North Macedonia and Bulgaria looks to pave the way for Macedonian entry into the European Union, but hurdles within the Macedonian government remain.

North Macedonian and Greek representatives sign the Prespa Agreement (Photo: North Macedonian Government)

The Long Road to European Belonging

North Macedonia, a small nation in the southern Balkans, was one of the many nations which earned their independence after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Largely untouched by the violent fighting of the Balkan independence struggles of the 1990’s, North Macedonia has been trying to find its place in Europe. Located at the crossroads of three larger cultures, Greek, Bulgur and Serb, the Macedonians have long been vying for international recognition not only of their state, but also of their culture and language. With a population of less than two million, the Macedonians have only known independence since 1991, being ruled in various eras by both Serbian and Bulgarian elements. With independence came the search for admission into the European community and only nine years after earning their sovereignty, the Macedonian government opened up the first discussions with the European Union on a road to membership. This road to EU membership would be long and tedious for the Macedonian government and would force the nation to make several concessions in order to be accepted by their neighbors and European allies. In 2004, Macedonia (which, at this time was often labelled on maps as FYROM or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) officially submitted its application for EU membership. The process from applicant to full member can last decades, as the Macedonians would soon find out. In the consequent years, Macedonia would struggle with an insurgency by Albanian fighters, most of whom had escaped from Kosovo during that country’s bloody independence war, as well as what has been labeled as „Macedonism“, or the attempt to grow and secure a unique culture and history for the Macedonian peoples. Part of this Macedonism included another strategy called Antiquization, in which Macedonia looked back on its history in the age of Antiquity as a point of national pride. Throughout the country, statues and museums dedicated to two of the most famous men of Antiquity, Alexander the Great and his father Phillip, both of whom came from the ancient region of Macedon, were erected. This move to assert the Macedonian identity of these two men was seen as controversial in neighboring Greece, a nation with whom the legend of Alexander the Great is much closer attached. Although portions of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedon did indeed stretch into the borders of modern-day North Macedonia, a majority of the ancient kingdom was within the borders of modern-day Greece, and the Greek region named Macedonia. It was this process of antiquization which proved to be the first hurdle for Macedonia to join the EU. Any accession talks between the European Union and Macedonia were immediately blocked by Greece, who objected to Macedonia’s continued use of the word Macedonia for the country. The legal full name, FYROM, was seen as an initial compromise between the two Balkan states, but Greece continued to push for a full change in the name of their northern neighbors. A breakthrough in the naming dispute finally came in 2018. In the so-called Prespa Agreement, Greek Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev agreed that Macedonia would change its official name to North Macedonia, a compromise which, although controversial in both nations, was applauded within Europe and finally broke down one of the longest standing challenges for Macedonia to join the EU. This agreement also ended disagreements between both sides on integral parts of the Macedonian culture, including the history and origin of both the Macedonian and Greek cultures. However, the relationship with North Macedonia’s eastern neighbor, Bulgaria, still had to be mended.

Culture Clash

With the issue of the nation’s name finalized and approved by both the Greek and North Macedonian parliaments, North Macedonia was one step closer to being a member of the European community. In March of 2020, North Macedonia took one step closer to building a bridge with the international community by becoming a member of NATO, which was only possible after Greek vetoes on the issue of the nation’s membership ceased as a consequence of the Prespa Agreement. Unfortunately for North Macedonia, their way forward was blocked by another neighbor, this time, Bulgaria. Bulgaria was the very first country to recognize the independence of Macedonia back in the 1990’s, but many Bulgarians, including members of Bulgarian academia, see Macedonia, including its culture and language, as a part of Bulgarian culture and heritage. The attempts at building and creating a unique Macedonian culture, separate from their Slavic, Orthodox neighbors is a relatively new phenomenon. Macedonian nationalism only began to grow in earnest by the people within the borders of North Macedonia in the interwar period of the 1920’s, when Macedonia was a part of Yugoslavia. As this nation broke down, the Macedonians, who over the past 70 years had been building their own national identity, declared independence and formed their own nation. But many outside of Macedonia saw the country as a country which included many members of surrounding ethnic groups (Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, Greeks), but fewer true “Macedonians”. Although Macedonian culture now has its own literature, cultural artifacts, traditions, customs, and shared history, Bulgaria, and many Bulgarians, tends to view Macedonia as nothing more than a Western extension of Bulgaria. The fact that the Macedonian language has such a high degree of mutual intelligibility with the Bulgarian language, to the point where some linguists describe Macedonian as merely a dialect of Bulgarian, does not help this issue. This point of contention between Bulgaria and North Macedonia on the Macedonian culture came to a head in 2020, when Bulgaria vetoed attempts by North Macedonia to officially begin accession talks to join the European Union. In the opinion of Bulgaria, North Macedonia, in its attempts to create a distinct Macedonian culture, have engaged in “historical negationism” of the Bulgarian culture, seeking to eliminate those parts of the Bulgarian culture which are present within the borders of North Macedonia. Furthermore, if North Macedonia was to become an EU member, then the Macedonian language would become an official language of the European Union, a move which Bulgaria rejects on the grounds that Macedonian is nothing more than a regional dialect of Bulgarian, a language which is already an official language of the European Union. The move by the Bulgarian government was very popular among their constituents, with one poll conducted in November of 2020 showing that more than 83% of Bulgarians were in favor of blocking North Macedonia’s accession to the European Union, until specific demands regarding the Macedonian language and the Bulgarian cultural heritage in the country, were met. Finally, a compromise was offered from outside the region, with French President Emmanuel Macron putting forth a proposal to the Bulgarian government which would help to alleviate the situation. After much debate in Bulgaria, which eventually led to the breakdown of the ruling coalition in Bulgaria, the French proposal was ratified by the Bulgarian parliament. Then late last week, the proposal was unexpectedly approved by the parliament in North Macedonia, despite widespread protests, a boycott by the opposition parties in parliament and the opinion of the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, who stated that the French proposal was “unacceptable” for his nation. The proposal would see that the North Macedonian constitution would be changed to acknowledge a Bulgarian minority within the country, would introduce new measures to protect this minority’s rights and would not force Bulgaria to accept the Macedonian language as an official language of the European Union.

Internal Disagreements may Prove to be the Hardest Problem Yet

With the two final major disagreements between North Macedonia and their neighbors now seemingly out of the way, it may soon be the North Macedonian Parliament itself which limits the country’s ability to join the European Union. A simple majority of parliamentarians was necessary to approve the French plan in theory, but a two-thirds majority is required to actually ratify the changes to the constitution foreseen in the French plan. Already the main opposition parties in North Macedonia have stated that they will not pass the French plan, with the leader of the largest opposition party stating that “nothing is over”. For North Macedonia, the road to European membership has been long and tedious, requiring the country to face the most difficult questions of their national heritage, history, and culture. Now it looks as if once again they will be faced with the prospect of sacrificing parts of their culture for a future as a part of the European community.

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