Skopje on fire as MEPs slam EU leaders’ failure to open accession talks

Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev at the North Macedonia Association Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium. [Shutterstock]

Postponing the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania was a “serious mistake” and “grave error”, European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs on Tuesday (22 October), as negative effects already started showing in the Western Balkans.

North Macedonia’s reformist prime minister Zoran Zaev called for a snap election and Serbia pressed ahead with plans to sign a trade deal with Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

After the EU summit, a vast majority of member states expressed their disappointment over French President Emmanuel Macron’s veto of the two Western Balkan countries, voicing fears that it could open the door to external influence in the region.

“It is a serious mistake not to have opened the negotiations, because it affects these two countries in their heart and the EU creates the impression that we make promises we do not keep,” Juncker told MEPs in his last address to Parliament.

North Macedonia and Albania “had a right to open negotiations”, he criticised and warned that unless the block keeps its promises, “no one will respect us in the world.”

Although a majority of governments were willing to take the step, the lack of necessary unanimity prevented it, Tusk said criticising the obstacles laid on the Western Balkan’s European path and calling it a “grave error”.

He voiced hope that EU leaders will “draw the right conclusions” when they re-address the accession process before the May 2020 EU-Western Balkans summit.

France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed the opening of talks, pointing to the lack of preparedness of the two candidates, and expressed particular reservations towards Albania.

Attempts to decouple the two countries remained unsuccessful mainly due to Greek and Italian opposition, while Paris has been calling for a reform of the whole enlargement process before giving the go-ahead for opening new accession negotiations.

MEPs unanimously slam enlargement decision

“We have asked much of those countries and now we are slamming the door in their face,” European People’s Party’s (EPP) leader Manfred Weber said during the debate.

“We are happy to examine structural changes, but we should have told that to the two countries before,” he said, pointing out that all EPP-affiliated EU leaders gave their support to the enlargement decision, in an indirect dig against Macron and his liberal Renew Europe group.

Greens leader Philippe Lamberts called the decision “a serious blunder”, adding that Macron was welcomed in the European Parliament two years ago as a “great European”, but “as time goes by, the French enlargement veto shows Macron is neither as great nor as European” as everyone assumed.

Dacian Cioloș, leader of Renew Europe, a group built around Macron’s party, said that “as a Romanian citizen, I am persuaded that enlargement has to stay at the heart of European politics”.

“We cannot ask those countries to carry out reforms without giving them a clear ambition and a clear prospect for Europe,” Cioloș told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg in carefully worded criticism of Macron’s idea of reviewing the EU accession process.

However, an EU Parliament source told EURACTIV that “some parts” of Renew in fact “tried very hard” to prevent a resolution being put on the agenda of the European Parliament’s sitting later on Thursday.

A Renew source told EURACTIV that French MEPs believed “there is no sense in talking about enlargement, while we’re dealing with a country that’s trying to leave the Union”.

“This is also why the Brits abstained from the vote – we think enlargement is a good thing but we didn’t want to go completely against Renew,” the Renew source added.

Socialist group leader Iratxe García Pérez said enlargement would “breathe in a new life in the EU” and the two countries’ eventual membership would “contribute to the stability in the region.”

North Macedonia name change deal under threat

The deadlock on enlargement prompted North Macedonia’s pro-EU Prime Minister Zaev to call for snap elections on 12 April 2020. Zaev, who called the decision to postpone the talks a “historic mistake”, will resign on 3 January and a technical government will be appointed.

According to Greek news website News247, the date Zaev picked for the elections is not a coincidence. North Macedonia will have likely joined NATO by that time, considering that only six countries still need to ratify its accession. Furthermore, the prospect of opening accession talks will increase ahead of the planned EU-Western Balkans summit in May.

But things are expected to get more complicated if conservative nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, which belongs to the European People’s Party (EPP), takes power in Skopje.

VMRO-DPMNE took a hardline stance on the name dispute with neighbouring Greece and attempted to block the deal until the very last moment, triggering the reaction of the EPP itself, which called on its member to see the positive long-term potential of the agreement.

VMRO-DPMNE is leading the latest polls, conducted before the French veto, with a 6% edge over Zaev’s ruling SDSM party, as 42.6% of respondents said they would vote for VMRO-DPMNE, while 36.6% were in favour of SDSM.

It’s not certain if VMRO-DPMNE will try to blow up the deal Zaev reached with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, as resolving the name dispute has been a key prerequisite for Athens to unblock Skopje’s EU accession talks.

In Athens, the conservative New Democracy government (EPP), which also fought against the name change deal when it was in opposition,  is keeping a low profile on the issue.

However, Greek media report it will likely be put in a difficult position should VMRO-DPMNE takes the power.

“Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis will find himself in a difficult position vis-à-vis his audience given the pre-election climate he has created. He will have to defend the Prespa [name change] Agreement, and align with the international community and Berlin,” News247 wrote.

Adonis Georgiadis, the minister of growth in the MItsotakis cabinet and one of the fierce opponents of the deal, said any agreement should be scraped should Skopje break it.

“We do not like the Prespa Agreement, but it is valid as long as… [North Macedonian people] adhere to it. If the agreement is breached, this is the reason for us to denounce it and therefore, it will no longer be in force,” he told Skai TV.

Former Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, who signed the deal with Zaev, criticised Mitsotakis for his “passive” stance on the enlargement issue. He said Greece should not be an observer but should lead the initiatives in the Balkan region. Greece had initiated enlargement in the region by organising the Thessaloniki summit in 2003.

“Before, [Mitsotakis] called the agreement disastrous, treacherous and damaging. Now he says we must respect it and honour it. I imagine Mr Mitsotakis would beg for Zaev not to lose the elections as in that case, he will have to deal with his like-minded people,” Tsipras said referring to VMRO-DPMNE.

According to Balkan Insight, Italian PM Giuseppe Conte is visiting Skopje next week in an effort to keep accession efforts on course and avoid a decoupling scenario.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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