The Brief – North Macedonia’s latest moment of truth

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI]

As we wrote only a few weeks ago, there is a flurry of post-COVID elections across Eastern Europe and now it is the turn of North Macedonia, a country with a chequered history of international relations. The result of today’s vote could well determine the next chapter for the Western Balkans EU candidate.

The parliamentary election, originally due in April but postponed due to the coronavirus, is taking place today (15 July), pitting the Social Democrats, whose leader Zoran Zaev resigned as prime minister in February, against the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE.

But there is a deeper narrative here: the EU said in March it was finally ready to open accession talks but did not set a date. And although no one will say it aloud, when exactly this will happen might well depend on the outcome of today’s election.

Polls suggest – wait for it – that it will be a tight race between the two parties and that whoever wins will have to work hard to find coalition partners and form a government.

In one corner is Zaev, a reformer we previously described as the “Macron of the Balkans‘. Zaev engineered a landmark deal with Greece whereby his country became North Macedonia (as opposed to ‘Macedonia’, or the horrific ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, FYROM), much to the displeasure of nationalist forces in his country and the delight of copy-editors everywhere.

In the other is VMRO, now led by Hristijan Mickoski, who accused Zaev of having sold the country, its people and history. Mickoski’s predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, was sentenced to prison for graft and fled to Hungary, whose courts refuse to extradite him.

Gruevski, who ruled the country from 2006 to 2016, says he is a victim of a political setup and is afraid for his life should he go back to Skopje.

During his decade in power, the country made no progress in talks with Greece and its EU bid was effectively frozen. Under Zaev, it joined NATO in March.

For analysts, it’s a choice between stability and progress on the long road towards EU membership (Zaev) or the rekindled nationalist sentiment which may risk creating new obstacles (Mickoski, who tweeted this week that the election is “the last chance to save Macedonia”).

But analysts do not get to decide the winner.

Everyone knows that the Western Balkans could do with more stability and progress, just like we know that the volatile region does not often take its cue from the West.

Interestingly, the election was barely mentioned in neighbouring Greece, even though the name row with Skopje generated headlines for years.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ ruling New Democracy belongs to the same political family as the VMRO – the European People’s Party – and Mitsotakis himself had openly opposed the name deal, signed by his leftist predecessor Alexis Tsipras.

But his right-wing government has now accepted the deal and domestically, it would be political suicide for Mitsotakis to support Zaev, even though he is clearly the EU’s unnamed favourite.

Thankfully, all eyes in Greece are now on perennial nemesis Turkey and on crucial EU budget talks, so he can afford to stay silent, for now.

The Roundup

US technology giant Apple did not unlawfully benefit from state aid as part of corporate tax rulings in Ireland, the general court of the EU said. The decision annuls the European Commission’s bid to claim €13 billion back in unlawful tax advantages.

Just before the EU Council summit on Friday, leaders of those EU countries that suffered most from the coronavirus pandemic are meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the politician on whom they pin their hopes for a rapid recovery.

The EU’s proposed €750 billion recovery fund should not be seen as a gift to EU member states. Rather, it is a financial instrument to fund the greening, digitalisation and competitiveness of the European economy, Italy’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Maurizio Massari, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Austria’s EU Minister Karoline Edtstadler does not expect an agreement to be reached at the EU’s budget summit on Friday and Saturday. In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, she explains where Austria wants to renegotiate and pleads for a stricter link to the rule of law.

In a Bastille Day interview with French media, President Emmanuel Macron detailed his economic orientation for the final two years of his five-year term. 

In an exclusive interview, Hikmat Hajiev, head of the foreign affairs department of Azerbaijan’s presidential administration, explains the stakes of a recent armed clash at the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which he calls a deliberate provocation from Yerevan.

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands mapped out how the humble bicycle could become king of the road and urged the EU to prioritise two wheels in the post-virus recovery.

The global aerospace duopoly of Airbus and Boeing managed to sell just one aircraft in June, as the virus outbreak’s economic impact on the aviation industry and the grounded MAX scandal continue to affect order books.

France, Germany and Italy have collectively spent $44 billion on fossil fuels during the coronavirus crisis, compared to $29 billion for clean energy, according to fresh data.

Portuguese energy utility EDP has announced the closure of its Sines coal power plant, bringing forward the planned shutdown of coal-fired power plants in the country by two years, from 2023 to 2021.

Look out for…

  • European Parliament’s LIBE, FEMM, EMPL, DEVE, SEDE
  • Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council
  • Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen receives Slovak PM

Views are the author’s

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