NATO setback upsets Macedonia’s EU hopes

The failure of Macedonia to secure an invitation to join NATO at the Alliance’s summit despite the accession of its neighbours could have a negative impact on its bid to join the EU, according to a number of politicians and analysts. EURACTIV Romania contributed to this report from Bucharest.

While NATO leaders gathered at the summit in Bucharest on 2 April invited Croatia and Albania to join the Alliance, Greece used its veto to block the bid of its neighbour Macedonia on the grounds of a long-standing ‘name’ dispute between Athens and Skopje. 

Greek officials also stated that Macedonia has violated good neighbourly relations with their country and thus it did not yet deserve to become a member of the Alliance. 

But Macedonia’s negotiator in the ‘name’ dispute talks with Greece, Nikola Dimitrov, rejected these claims. “We are punished not because of unfulfilled NATO benchmarks, but for who we are. We are punished for our Macedonian identity,” he told the Associated Press news agency following the Greek veto. 

Macedonia reacted with disappointment and condemnation, boycotting further sessions of the Summit on 3 April. Security was also stepped up in front of the Greek Embassy in Skopje although there was no immediate reason to believe violent outbursts of anger against Greece would follow.

The small country has repeatedly offended Greece and Bulgaria by appropriating parts of ancient Greek history. The recent naming of Skopje’s airport “Alexander the Great” provoked the anger of Athens, while Bulgaria has reacted on numerous occasions when large sections of its medieval and recent history were “adapted” for Macedonian textbooks. 

Bulgaria’s spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dimitar Tsanchev stated on 2 April: “Bulgaria insists that the historic, cultural and other facts related with the geographical zone of Macedonia be respected. Today there are three states on this territory, including Bulgaria.” 

Nevertheless Tsantchev also warned that the blockage of Macedonia’s accession “would mean delaying the process of European and Euro-Atlantic integration”. 

The same concern was raised by several European leaders. Before the dinner in Bucharest, when the NATO enlargement issue was discussed, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, warned that if Macedonia failed to get an invitation to join NATO, it would be a bad sign for EU enlargement too. 

What’s more, a delay in inviting Macedonia to join NATO could encourage radicals and fuel instability in the Balkans, warned Albania’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha, quoted by Reuters.

“There is no formal link between EU and NATO as regards membership but of course many of the criteria of NATO membership overlap with EU membership,” Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee in Brussels on 2 April. 

Macedonia hopes to officially open EU membership talks this year. But the most recent assessment of its progress by the European Commission says that “frequent tensions and problems in achieving constructive dialogue between major political actors undermined the functioning of the political institutions and led to a slowdown in reforms”. 

The summit also saw Georgia and Ukraine’s hopes of joined NATO dashed, as leaders refused to grant them official candidate status. However, they did acknowledge that the two countries would one day become NATO members.

Dimitar Mircev, president of the European Movement and an ex-Macedonian ambassador, told EURACTIV that the news from Bucharest was "bad", but he did not expect any dramatic repercussions in the coming months. Nevertheless, he warned that Macedonia may cancel its 1995 interim agreement with Greece, which he says commits Greece to supporting the accession of Macedonia to international organisations. 

"This means automatically cancelling the negotiations we now have with Greece. This is the most serious issue," Mircev warned. He nevertheless said he was not worried about the EU perspectives of his country, because a similar obstruction from Greece could not come before 2013, when Macedonia expects to have its accession treaty ratified by EU countries. 

Micev called the Greek claims that Macedonia has violated good neighbourly relations by stealing parts of its ancient history "ridiculous". "We are a small country, we are not members of NATO or of the EU, we are not equal partners, we are not appropriating anyone's history," he said. 

Goran Momiroski, diplomatic editor  at A1 Television in Macedonia, told EURACTIV Romania that the Greek veto on NATO membership would "definitely burden the process of Euroatlantic integration because we have put so much effort in the last 15 years into joining NATO and the European Union". "We were dealing according to the criteria given to us by NATO and Brussels, and at the end of the day it seems that these criteria are irelevant," he added.

Momiroski also believes the setback in Bucharest will slow down the reform process in his country. "It will also burden the political life in the country as very soon we are going to have the elections. We will lose another year, maybe, until the new government is established. It will definitely burden the country's EU report that is expected in November." 

"Practically there are so many problems that derive from this decision at the NATO Summit that will have a negative influence on Macedonian political life," he concluded. 

Bulgarian MEP Evgeni Kirilov told EURACTIV that the setback for Macedonia at the summit was "logical". "It seems that the Macedonian authorities have still to learn about how to conduct sincere good neighbourly relations not only with Greece, but also with Bulgaria," he stated. Kirilov explained that the issue behind the story was not only in the 'name', but also the "manipulation by Skopje of the ancient history of Greece and the medieval and more recent history of Bulgaria". 

He added that his country was ready to help Macedonia to understand the situation and avoid destabilising the country, "because otherwise there are risks of slowing down the EU integration process". 

Green MEP Angelika Beer, her party's spokeswoman for security policy and coordinator for foreign policy, said in a statement: "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." 

Sabine Fraser  from the International Crisis Group told EURACTIV that the fact that NATO could not extend an invitation to Macedonia was very disappointing. Describing the decision as "a setback for security," she said it was regrettable that Greece took such a hardline position. She stressed that the situation in the Western Balkans was "very sensitive" right now, particularly because of Kosovo. 

"Macedonia has been a stabilising force for the region, it has been generally a positive partner with regard to Kosovo, therefore if Macedonia had become a NATO member, this would have stabilised the region even more," Fraser explained. Although she said there should be no link between Macedonia's NATO and EU accessions, Fraser feared the same 'name' problem could hamper Skopje's EU accession efforts. 

Since the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was created in 1949, the Alliance has taken in new members on five separate occasions, with membership growing from 12 to 26. 

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union has, in the past decade, led NATO's borders to spread further east, most notably with the 2004 accession of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The United States has been pushing hard for other former communist countries, including Macedonia, Croatia, Albania, Ukraine and Georgia, to join the Alliance. While consensus appeared to be reached on enlarging to the first three states, the final two raised more questions. Russia, in particular, argues that they are not mature or stable enough for accession. And European countries are divided, with many concerned about angering Moscow (EURACTIV 02/04/08).

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