North Macedonia en course to join NATO, awaits decision on EU bid

North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (L) is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on 4 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

While NATO accession is just within reach for North Macedonia, its bid to join the EU still hangs in the balance and will be discussed by member states later this month. A thumbs-down from the EU could easily topple the country’s reformist government, its Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, said on Wednesday (5 June).

After talks with Zaev, Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday (4 June) that EU foreign ministers will discuss North Macedonia’s bid to join the bloc at their meeting in Luxembourg on 18 June. This comes two days before an EU-28 Council needs to take a final decision on whether to allow North Macedonia and Albania to open accession talks.

“The Romanian presidency has put this issue on the agenda of the General Affairs Council in June for the first debate, I would say,” Juncker told reporters.

“The intention of the Commission is to do everything to have a definite decision taken in the summer.”

“I said clearly back in 2018 that no country will join the European Union unless it has solved all its bilateral disputes. North Macedonia has heeded the call,” Juncker told reporters in Brussels.

In February, Greece and Northern Macedonia ended a 27-year-old name dispute, lifting Athens’ veto on North Macedonia’s way toward the EU and NATO. North Macedonia has been an EU candidate since 2005 and in NATO’s loop since 1995.

Last week, the European Commission formally recommended that North Macedonia, as well as Albania, should start negotiations to join the bloc, saying Skopje is ready for talks and has made “substantial progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime.”

Commission recommends opening accession talks with Albania, North Macedonia

The European Commission recommended on Wednesday (29 May) opening accession talks with two Western Balkan countries, Albania and North Macedonia, saying they had “embraced the opportunity and delivered on reforms”. But this will need to be approved by the member states.

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Some members states, however, are cautious about admitting new members too quickly, France and the Netherlands have voiced their reservations, though more about Albania than Macedonia.

“I know that some member states have some concerns. I will do everything possible to try to convince them to follow this historical movement and I will defend North Macedonia whenever it is needed,” Juncker added.

Zaev himself did not mince his words during a press briefing in Brussels on Wednesday.

“If we got a ‘no’ from the EU, we would immediately lose the majority in parliament, my government would be destroyed. We would have early elections, lose precious six months. The EU would lose credibility among our citizens, and this would be hopeful for the nationalist forces”.

Conversely, Skopje’s NATO membership is almost a done deal. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Skopje earlier this week that the alliance was “ready to welcome” the country as its 30th member, in early 2020 at the latest.

“North Macedonia has a seat at the NATO table,” he said after the meeting.

“It is important to commend North Macedonia for the reforms you have implemented,” Stoltenberg told reporters after his meeting with Zaev, praising the country’s plans to double its defence spending to 2% GDP by 2024.

NATO members officially signed the NATO accession protocol in February, after Athens and Skopje ratified the historic Prespa Agreement that ended their 27-year-old name dispute. The country’s entry protocol has been approved and awaits only the expected ratification by the final 15 of NATO’s 29 members.

Although the ratification process normally takes a year and is largely driven by the time required for national ratification procedures in the capitals, Zaev said in Skopje, speaking alongside Stoltenberg, that he expected the procedure to be finalised as early as the end of October.

Symbolically, Greece to be first to open NATO doors for North Macedonia

In a symbolic gesture, the Greek government will most probably be the first country to ratify North Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol, as it aims to do it by 8 February, sources close to the issue told EURACTIV.com.

“Whether this will be the case at the recently called NATO summit in December remains open. But this option is on the table,” a NATO source told EURACTIV earlier this year.

The only possible obstacle could prove to be the Greek snap elections on 7 July, where conservative New Democracy party (EPP) – which has opposed the Prespa Agreement and voted against the NATO accession protocol in the Greek Parliament – is expected to rank first, but might fall short of an absolute majority to form a government.

As EURACTIV reported earlier, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, however, has repeatedly said in closed-door meetings that he will honour the deal. However, his supporters in northern Greece expect him to block Northern Macedonia’s accession talks, including NATO.

In Skopje, Stoltenberg noted that the “Prespa Agreement is a great inspiration and a model for the region to overcome differences” and could serve as an incentive to restart dialogue and defuse tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.

Neighbours in the region – Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro – have already joined NATO, as have other countries in the Balkan region including Albania, Bulgaria and Romania.

Serbia, where resentment against NATO is still strong, twenty years after the alliance’s air campaign against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, has signalled it will not seek NATO membership, while it is already negotiating to join the EU.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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