EU-Macedonia relations


The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's bid to join the EU is currently blocked by a dispute with Athens over its name, which is identical to that of a Greek province.

In official EU documents, Macedonia is referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" due to a dispute over the country's name, which is identical to a Greek province.

Macedonia, its constitutional name for the sake of shortness, first appeared as a country at international level in 1991 after declaring independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Macedonia is a landlocked country bordered by Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. Its territory is crossed by the Vardar River, which is of both economic and political relevance as some political players have proposed using the name Vardar Macedonia as a possible solution to the name dispute with Greece.

Macedonia is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the second biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.

Ever since the country's independence, integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war.

The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the Kosovar-Albanian communities in northern Macedonia (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces. The text sanctioned Albanian as an official language for Macedonia, triggered administrative decentralisation and required the inclusion of ethnic Albanians in the government, army and police.

Recently, Macedonia and Kosovo came to an agreement on a border dispute (EURACTIV 19/10/09).

The country's ethnic diversity is reflected in the variety of its religions. Macedonia orthodoxy is practiced by 68% of the population and Islam by 29%, with most of the practitioners of the latter being of Albanian origin. Constitutionally, the church is separated from the state. The Constitutional Court reiterated this principle with a ruling banning religious teaching in public schools.

Meanwhile, the so-called 'name dispute' with Greece, which is blocking Macedonia's EU entry talks, can be traced back to the 1990s. The then European Economic Community accepted a 1992 recommendation from Robert Badinter, who headed the Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on the former Yugoslavia, regarding the recognition of FYROM as a sovereign state and acknowledging the name dispute.

In 1996, the country became eligible to receive European funding under the PHARE programme, the EU's main financial instrument to assist Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) during the run-up to the 2004 enlargement. As of 2001, CARDS replaced PHARE for the countries of the Western Balkans.

Since 2007, Macedonia has been receiving EU funds through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). Between 2007 and 2012, Macedonia is expected to receive roughly 500 million euros through the IPA. Of this, 92.3m is earmarked for 2010.

Macedonia's Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the central pillar of the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP), was signed on 9 April 2001 and entered into force in April 2004, immediately after Macedonia's application for membership in March 2004.

EU candidate status was granted in December 2005, under the UK EU presidency. Yet FYROM has not been able to open any negotiating chapters, with Greece vetoing over the start of talks due to the name issue.

The main development in recent years has been progress on visa liberalisation, with a fully-fledged visa liberalisation regime between the EU and Macedonia coming into force in December 2009. The decision also applies to Montenegro and Serbia (EURACTIV 01/12/09).

Cracking the 'name dispute' puzzle

Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest.

Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece pledged to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.

The name issue cannot be dismissed as a mere labelling problem. It touches on at least four aspects which are relevant for both parties.

  • Firstly, the dispute has territorial connotations. If Macedonia is first and foremost a region, then the term could potentially refer to Greek Macedonia or FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), as well as Bulgarian territory and a small piece of Albanian territory.
  • Secondly, from a Greek perspective, the Slavic Macedonians and the Greek Macedonians are part of two different groups. According to Greek scientists, the first are labelled as 'Makedontsi' and the second as 'Makedones'. Yet this distinction has been indirectly rejected by Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who claims it is "strange" to classify people as originating only from the ancient Macedonians or from Slavs alone.
  • The ethnic dimension of the dispute thus also has an historical and national identity side to it. When Macedonia acquired the characteristics of statehood, the government authorities and Prime Minister Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party tried to construct an image of the Macedonian past which included clear references to the Hellenic period as part of an 'antiquisation' process. A clear example of this was the renaming of Skopje airport in honour of Alexander the Great in December 2008. Greece staunchly opposes such moves as it believes Hellenism to be unquestionably Greek.
  • Lastly, there is also a commercial dimension since a number of products which are labelled as Macedonian products could mistakenly be seen as coming from FYROM. From a Greek perspective, if 'Macedonian' as an adjective were to refer only to FYROM, it would threaten Macedonian products from Greek Macedonia.

International dead-end

Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name by all EU countries except Greece, the 'name dispute' has led to an impasse in the country's membership of NATO and the EU.

The Bucharest summit of 4 April 2008, during which Croatia and Albania were invited to join NATO,while Macedonia's bid was put on ice, was perceived as a serious blow to Skopje's hopes. It also sparked harsh criticism of the Greek stance, as it was seen as a breach of the 1995 UN Interim Accord (EURACTIV 04/04/08).

Macedonia reacted by suing Greece at the International Court of Justice and pushing hard in diplomatic bilateral relations to get the name 'Republic of Macedonia' adopted. In this respect Macedonia's claims seem to be gaining ground, with more than 100 UN members using its constitutional name and four out of five members of the Security Council calling it 'Republic of Macedonia'. In a major blow to Greece, during the second Bush administration the USA recognised the 'Republic of Macedonia' as its appropriate constitutional name.

Both the EU and the UN have a special representative in Macedonia. The former is represented by Erwan Fouéré, and the latter by Matthew Nimetz. For the last few years the UN envoy has been trying repeatedly to broker an agreement, but so far he has been unsuccessful.

A number of alternatives were put on the table to solve the issue, including: Vardar Macedonia, Republika Makedonija-Skopje, Constitutional Republic of Macedonia, Democratic Republic of Macedonia, Independent Republic of Macedonia, New Republic of Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia.

The last and most promising option for reaching a solution appears to be 'Republic of Northern Macedonia'. What remains to be determined is the scope of the new name's use, including for example whether all documents such as passports would need to be changed accordingly.

Since November 2009, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his Greek counterpart George Papandreou have been holding direct talks, with UN mediation, in an attempt to break the deadlock. Seemingly, progress has been made.

In June, the Greek press reported that an agreement was close, with Macedonia considering adding 'Vardar' to its name. Using Vardar – the name of the country's main river– would satisfy the demands of Athens (EURACTIV 16/06/10).

However, seen from other angles, a solution to the long-standing problem does not appear to be within reach at all. In September, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov described Greece's position as "irrational" and called on Athens to stop frustrating the negotiations (EURACTIV 10/09/10).

Encyclopaedia row

A recent controversy involving an encyclopaedia, published by FYROM's Academy of Sciences and Arts (MANU), illustrates the tensions which government circles in Skopje appear to be capable of generating (EURACTIV 13/10/09).

The work has managed to offend most of Macedonia's neighbours. Similarly to Greece, which considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history, Bulgaria was also offended by what it saw as its neighbour cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its 19th and early 20th century struggle against Ottoman domination. 

However, the most offended were Kosovars and the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia itself, as MANU refers to ethnic Albanians as "settlers" who came to the country in the 16th century and to Albanians as 'Shiptari' or 'Planinci', which have derogatory connotations. The Albanians generally consider themselves to be the descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC. 

The authors also claim that the ethnic Albanian movement in Macedonia, the National Liberation Army, was trained by US and British special forces in 2001, and that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes. In fact, Ahmeti has never been indicted. Both the US and UK embassies have rejected the information as "false" and "ridiculous". 

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha called the book "absurd and unacceptable" and complained of "identity based on the forgery of history". 

Bulgarian and Greek leaders kept a low profile, but according to diplomats, the encyclopaedia has infuriated both Athens and Sofia.  

Skopje, meanwhile, was apparently less concerned about the reactions in Athens and Sofia than those of elsewhere. The ambassador of an EU country told EURACTIV that in fact it was pressure from the USA and the UK which convinced Skopje to back down and remove the book from the shelves.

An all-powerful governing party

EU representatives lament the lack of political dialogue in Macedonia. This situation is aggravated by the fact that there is an all-powerful party in power, the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity), which describes itself as Christian Democratic and is inspired by nationalism.

The party controls the parliament, the presidency and two-thirds of local municipalities, a grip on power which the European Commission insists brings with it a responsibility to engage with other party leaders.

Although freedom of expression remains at satisfactory levels, "political interference in the media is a source of concern as it leads to self-censorship and limits freedom of expression," the Commission said in its October 2009 progress report on Macedonia's EU membership bid.  

The report further took notice of the fact that Gruevski's party VMRO-DPMNE has challenged the legitimacy of a Constitutional Court ruling on religious education. Although constitutionally Macedonia is a secular country, the ruling party had introduced religious education at school, a decision which has since been reversed.

"This incident raised concerns about the independence of the judiciary, although the government provided assurances that it would respect this ruling," the report says.

Minority problems and Roma exclusion

Overall the Commission progress report paints a generally positive picture of the handling of minority issues in Macedonia. But it expressed concern about education, and particularly referred to linguistic divisions between Macedonian and Albanian speakers in a number of municipalities.

"In some schools, in Kumanovo and Tetovo, for instance, segregation is virtually complete, as students go to separate buildings to study. Some, like the one in Struga, are well on their way to completing the process," claimed Ticiana Garcia-Tapia, education development officer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Spillover Monitor Mission to Skopje.

She nevertheless admits that there are still bright spots, and some schools do offer opportunities - albeit limited - for inter-ethnic contact.

The Commission's representative in Skopje, Erwan Fouéré, noted that an OSCE proposal on starting classes in Macedonian from the first instead of the fourth teaching grade has triggered much controversy. The current boycott of language classes in ethnic Albanian schools underlines the extreme sensitivity of this issue and the need for proper consultation, he said.

Additionally, the Commission laments the lack of progress made on Roma inclusion. The 2009 progress report stresses that some 73% of Roma are unemployed and 63% live under the poverty line. It also criticised the lack of funding for projects and stressed that the action plans defined for the 2005-2015 decade of Roma inclusion have so far not produced tangible results.

Economic prospects

According to the World Bank's 'Doing Business 2010' report, Macedonia ranked as third top reformer last year and it now occupies 32nd place in terms of the ease of doing business there, just behind France and before the United Arab Emirates. Such reform efforts have in recent years triggered considerable injections of foreign direct investment. FDI rose steadily between 2002 and 2007 from 105 to 699 million US dollars.

As it relies heavily on foreign investment, Macedonia was severely exposed to the financial crisis. In 2008, FDI dropped to $598 million. GDP growth remained high in 2007 (5.9%) and 2008 (5%). Yet growth slowed down from 6% in the first three quarters of 2008 to 2% in the fourth quarter. During the first semester of 2009, industrial production fell by 11%.

According to the Commission report, "the overall macroeconomic policy mix suffered from the low quality of government spending, with many measures geared more to election-related promises rather than to combating the crisis".

Nevertheless, by far the biggest problem facing Macedonia remains structural unemployment, which is hovering at around 34%. The most affected category appear to be the young population, which suffers from roughly 55% unemployment. Government policies in this respect have so far produced little results.

Ever since the EU visa liberalisation scheme was enforced, Belgium has complained of hundreds of Macedonians claiming for asylum. On a visit to Skopje on 6 February 2010, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme said his country would not allow this wave to continue. Four hundred Macedonians filed asylum requests in February 2010, compared with only 12 the year before, when the visa regime was still in force.

After meeting Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski on 19 October, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy called on the country to accelerate reforms to the judiciary, public administration and freedom of expression to speed up its EU accession process.

''Enlargement will remain a performance-based process. Candidate countries need to maintain a steady focus on meeting the standards and criteria. The rule of law and democracy agenda will remain of central importance in the foreseeable future. Strengthening the independence of the judiciary, improving the effectiveness of public administration and ensuring the freedom of expression remain centrally important elements of the work in front of your country,'' he stated.

Speaking in Brussels on 9 September, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov described Greece's position on the long-running name dispute as "irrational" and urged it to "act in a European manner". Instead of frustrating the negotiations, Athens should support and promote the European integration process for the whole Balkan region, he stated.

However, Ivanov added that he was encouraged by developments in recent months and spoke of "the restoration of trust and cooperation" between the two neighbours. He said that growing trade, tourism and university links had helped improve his country's relationship with Greece.

He stressed that European integration remains the "highest priority" for Macedonia and hailed the positive impact of the EU's decision to lift visa requirements for its citizens last December.

Speaking in Belgrade on 18 February 2010, Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, said that "the EU is drawing on all its foreign-policy instruments in this region [Western Balkans]. Military and civilian CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] missions have been concluded successfully in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia".

"At the same time, important challenges remain. Good neighbourly relations are essential. Regional cooperation is emerging but it is still at an early stage. Last but not least, the countries in the region need to do more to resolve outstanding bilateral issues. Many border disputes remain unresolved; trade issues still exist which should be a matter of the past, with everyone joining CEFTA [Central European Free Trade Agreement]," she said.

"The way to Europe passes through European ways of solving disputes. Through dialogue and with eyes set on a common future within the EU," Ashton concluded. 

Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle addressed the EU-FYROM parliamentary committee on 19 February 2010 in Skopje. He stressed that in 2009 "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia made convincing progress and substantially addressed the key reform priorities, also known as the 8+1 benchmarks".

"The Commission recommendation should also be taken as a strong encouragement to finally settle the name issue. We underline in our conclusions that maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue under the auspices of the UN, remains essential. We are encouraged by the direct dialogue at the level of prime ministers which began at the end of last year," he said.  

"The country's progress in the accession process means that there is now a unique window of opportunity for a solution, which should be grasped. As I stated in the European Parliament last week, I am fully committed to supporting the talks, which, with the necessary political will, should lead to a solution," he concluded. 

Speaking to the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee on 4 February 2010, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said he believes a solution to the long-standing 'name dispute' between Skopje and Athens will be reached soon. Questioned by MEPs, he said he believed the Spanish Presidency "can achieve a solution with respect to Macedonia" and praised the "very good" attitude of the new Socialist government in Greece.

Speaking in October 2009, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou stated that Greece and FYROM "share common interests in seeing our region flourishing, seeing our region stable and secure. We do want to solve the one unresolved issue, and I will work very sincerely in looking at all the possible ways to do so. I just wanted to make this statement in order to say that I will be working very closely with all of you to help this European project, this Balkan project both on a bilateral level, but also in making the vision of this common family come true in South Eastern Europe and in Europe".

Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas recently presented his country's position on the 'name dispute' in an interview with Greek-language New York daily 'Ethnikos Kiryx'. Droutsas said the previous US administration of George W. Bush had "complicated things," as it had sided with Macedonia and recognised its constitutional name.

He added: "The position of Greece is clear: We are seeking an erga omnes name with a geographical qualifier. We think that the United States can play a constructive role in this effort and that is why it is important for the US to have a clear view of Greek positions. It is clear and it has been pointed out with unanimous NATO and EU decisions that the solution of the name issue is a precondition for our neighbouring country's progress on its Euro-Atlantic course," he said.

At a December 2009 ceremony in Skopje on the subject of archeological findings in Macedonia, FYROM Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is quoted by the American Chronicle as saying: "We live an era of strange and funny debates about ancient Macedonians and Slavs. I think that after 50-100 years, future generations will wonder what happened in the period we live in today."

"It's funny to try to classify some people as originating from only ancient Macedonians or only from Slavs. We are dealing with many cultures that existed historically and today we cannot question what the ancient period comprised of. We cannot show only certain cultures and ignore others," Gruevski said.

EU special representative to FYROM Erwan Fouéré stressed that as well as the name issue a number of other problems are still outstanding. He listed strengthening political dialogue, fully implementing the Ohrid Framework Agreement, education, decentralisation, equitable representation, effective implementation of adopted laws, fighting corruption and fostering a vibrant civil society among these.

He also stressed the necessity of ensuring the independence of the media sector, which "continues to be subject to significant political interference". "It is the responsibility of the government to listen to and even accept criticism, whether it comes from civil society or from the media. This should be seen as a sign of strength rather than of weakness. Rather than dismiss such criticism as being, for example, against the interests of the state, the government, by embracing it, emerges enriched by independent thinking."

Former Green MEP Angelika Beer, her party's security policy spokeswoman and foreign policy coordinator, said in a statement following the April 2008 Bucharest Summit that "Greece's veto of a membership invitation to NATO gives an enlightened insight into Greece's stance towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Macedonia has worked hard for its EU and NATO membership perspective, which does not deserve to be blocked by the absurd Greek slogan of 'Macedonia remains Greek'. Greece herewith violates international standards […] calling into question Athens' commitment as a NATO member". 

Professor Evangelos Kofos, contributor to the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), said "the state name needs specifically to refer to and describe the present region of FYROM. It should apply erga omnes in multilateral and bilateral international relations and transactions and should be observed by all organisations, states, and other non-governmental international organisations, including the government and the agencies of FYROM".

In his opinion, "the parties should accept the name used by the inhabitants of FYROM for their region of geographical Macedonia, i.e. Vardar Macedonia, or preferably Vardar Makedonija".

Moreover "issues touching upon the self-identification of persons, which include their ethnicity and their right to identify themselves, should be respected. This means that their name, Makedontsi, by which they identify themselves in their language, should be respected in all foreign languages, including the Greek. A similar arrangement might apply to the use of Makedones for the Greek Macedonians".

Writing for the European Policy Centre, Srdjan Cvijic, an expert on Balkan issues, claims that "while a majority of EU and NATO members are sympathetic towards the situation the country finds itself in, European public opinion overwhelmingly regards the image of Alexander the Macedonian as intrinsically linked to the Hellenic (i.e. Greek) identity".

"A claim by any other state but Greece to this historic and cultural legacy is considered, to put it mildly, illegitimate. In the context of the process of building a distinctly Macedonian (non-Hellenic) national identity, which began in 1991, and cementing the state's territorial integrity, its 'antiquisation' risks becoming a liability." he said. 

The EU's inability to pressure Greece to respect a 1995 accord stipulating that Athens may not block bids by Macedonia to join international organisations has encouraged the growth of more radical nationalistic positions in Macedonia, writes Gjergji Vurmo, director of the Centre for European and Security Affairs at the Tirana-based Institute for Democracy and Mediation.

In an article published by Balkan, Vurmo argues that Macedonia, but also other prospective EU members from the Western Balkans confronted with "bilateral" problems, "may start to lose interest" in the merits of EU integration.

  • 10 March 1996: FYROM becomes eligible for funding under the EU's pre-accession PHARE programme.
  • March 2000: Opening of first EU delegation in Skopje.
  • June 2000: Feira European Council recognises Western Balkan countries that have signed a Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) with the EU as 'potential candidates' for EU membership.
  • Nov. 2000: Zagreb Summit starts Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for Macedonia.
  • Jan. 2001: Beginning of armed conflict between the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) and Macedonian security forces.
  • 9 April 2001: Signature of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA).
  • 10-12 Aug. 2001: Police operation in the village of Ljuboten. Seven ethnic Albanians killed during the operation.
  • 13 Aug. 2001: Ohrid peace agreement signed.
  • 26 Feb. 2004: Death of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in an aeroplane crash.
  • 22 March 2004: Macedonia files EU membership application.
  • 1 April 2004:SAA enters into force.
  • 9 Nov. 2005: Commission opinion on FYROM membership application.
  • 16 Dec. 2005: European Council grants candidate status to FYROM.
  • 5 July 2006: VMRO-DPMNE wins parliamentary elections. Its leader, Nikola Gruevski, becomes prime minister.
  • 1 Jan. 2008: EU visa liberalisation agreement enters into force.
  • 18 Feb. 2008: Council adopts Accession Partnership for FYROM.
  • 4 April 2008: Macedonia's NATO entry bid blocked due to Greek objections over 'name dispute' at Bucharest summit.
  • 1 June 2008: Early parliamentary elections take place following NATO rebuke.
  • 23 June 2008: EU summit makes resolution of name dispute with Greece a precondition of EU accession.
  • Dec. 2008: Skopje airport renamed after Alexander the Great.
  • 5 April 2009: Gjorge Ivanov is elected president of Republic of Macedonia.
  • 15 July 2009: European Commission proposes to grant visa liberalisation to FYROM citizens.
  • 19 Dec. 2009: Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia get visa liberalisation.

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