Will New Democracy undermine the positive momentum in the Western Balkans?

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

File photo. People from all over Greece protest against the Prespa agreement between Athens and Skopje regarding the name 'Northern Macedonia' for the Balkan country, at a rally in Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, 20 January 2019. [Orestis Panagiotou/EPA/EFE]

Following New Democracy’s return to power, there are concerns in Brussels, Berlin and Washington about changes in Greece’s policy towards its Balkan neighbours, write Alexandra Voudouri and Ioannis Armakolas.

Alexandra Voudouri is diplomatic affairs editor at the Athens 984 FM radio and Macropolis.gr. Ioannis Armakolas is a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)

At stake is the fate of the historic deal on the name issue signed by the leftist SYRIZA government with North Macedonia in June 2018, an event hailed as the best news coming from the troubled Balkans in years.

Moreover, pundits question to what extent Greeks would return to intransigent policies in the region and thus undermine the positive momentum to which Athens has contributed by reaching an agreement with Skopje.

Concerns may be justified as ND has opposed the deal, voting against it in Parliament, while its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has many times described it as “shameful” and party officials even called it “traitorous”.

To some extent, ND’s stance has been dictated by the fact that the majority of the public (60%) and the party’s voters (80%) have rejected the deal. There was also concern that parties of the right would have made serious inroads into ND’s electorate had the latter accepted the deal.

However, the clear majority that Mitsotakis received in Sunday’s elections could mean that a moderate foreign policy will prevail.

Nikos Dendias, the newly appointed minister of foreign affairs, is also considered a moderate politician, though he does not have previous experience in foreign policy.

Mitsotakis’ stance has provoked scepticism in Greece’s western allies but now he is widely expected to work towards repairing bridges with Berlin and Washington and to ease strains in relations with Brussels.

It is no coincidence that after June’s EP elections, when it became clear that ND would easily win in national elections, party officials toned down the rhetoric against the Prespa Agreement.

Mitsotakis has repeatedly said that “we don’t agree but we will respect the Agreement”.

The new PM is not expected to “rock the boat” and instead, he’s more likely to try cosmetic changes in the setup of relations with North Macedonia.

After all, the official line of the party rejects any possibility of the Prespa Agreement being scrapped. Their explanation being that this would have given every right to Turkey to continue its revisionary tactics regarding the 1923 Lausanne Treaty.

Moreover, party officials have repeatedly argued that once the Agreement has been –erroneously – ratified, any attempt by Greece to annul it would benefit Skopje instead of Athens.

The implementation of the agreement will, however, define ND’s stance on North Macedonia’s European perspectives.

The ND has warned that Athens will be ready to express objections and veto progress in accessions talks with Skopje, but not the beginning of these.

“Unfortunately, if someone strictly interprets the Prespa Agreement, our country does not have the ability to veto the opening of accession talks of the neighbouring country,” Mitsotakis said at a press conference in June.

He has warned that his government may block North Macedonia’s negotiating chapters as meaningful leverage for the implementation of the Agreement.

In October, when the European Council will be called to decide whether it will grant a date for accession talks for North Macedonia, Greece will likely follow the line set by others.

“We will look at the situation as it has developed at the time,” Mitsotakis has said, hinting that he will stand behind France, the Netherlands and Denmark’s position if they continue to block North Macedonia’s start of accession negotiations.

If there is, however, unanimity for giving a date to start negotiations, Greece will likely not stand in North Macedonia’s way.

Albania’s EU accession process: Squaring the circle

ND’s shadow foreign minister, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, clarified several months ago that his party would not consent to Albania’s start of accession negotiations.

It seems that ND is poised to block Albania’s European hopes in October and probably favour decoupling, in case there is unanimity at the European Council for North Macedonia’s case.

Greece’s focus will continue to be on the current political crisis in Albania and its record in tackling the rule of law and corruption. But above all, the main concerns relate to the protection of the Greek minority’s rights, a matter clearly of key concern for ND.

What complicates matters more is that the treatment of the Greek minority in Albania is a highly emotional issue, typically attracting populist media attention that generates pressure on policy; it is an issue “closer to heart” of ND’s right-wing voters.

What remains to be seen though is whether the new government will try to tackle Greek-Albanian disputes, currently stalled after a promising dialogue opened by SYRIZA government in 2017.

Bilateral problems include, among others, the delimitation of maritime zones and the technical state of war existing since 1945.

A previous ND government reached an agreement on the delineation of the sea zones with Albania in 2009, but the deal was annulled by Albania’s Constitutional Court. ND officials insist that the deal is non-negotiable and only minor alterations could be accepted.

The main driver against the sea borders agreement has been the then leader of the opposition Edi Rama, who is now prime minister.

It remains to be seen whether the new government will be setting excessively rigid conditions for Albania’s EU hopes and on fixing bilateral issues.

Most likely they would look for some incentive applying the usual tactic of “stick and carrot”; in this case, the stick would be related to issues of the Greek ethnic minority and the carrot Albania’s EU prospects.

But what amounts to an exercise in squaring the circle is the fact that, despite this complex relation, Greece must keep Albania’s accession hopes alive in a period of growing opposition to enlargement within the EU.

A possible derailment of Albania’s European accession would not be to Greece’s benefit as it would undermine Tirana’s stability and weaken the European leverage over Albanian politics.

Moreover, Greece would be surely concerned by moves towards a unification of Albania and Kosovo, which are certain to multiply if Tirana’s EU accession hopes are frustrated.

Thus, Greece will attempt to strike a balance between maintaining strong political pressure on Albania and keeping its European perspective alive. A challenging task indeed.

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