The Brief – Macedonian distraction in Strasbourg

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter

For once, the Balkans provided a source of content, and a welcome distraction, for the weary MEPs in Strasbourg when Macedonia’s prime minister rocked up to the hemicycle.

Parliament enjoyed a rarely emotional moment as Zoran Zaev took the floor to tell the story of his country, distilling 27 years of hoping, waiting and failing to make progress into an optimistic 20-minute speech that received a standing ovation from MEPs.

After engaging in a toxic debate about Hungary and listening to Jean-Claude Juncker’s uninspired, underwhelming speech, it was a welcome break and music for the ears of all Europhiles.

Zaev, a Social Democrat we have described as “the Macron of the Balkans”, looked deeply moved as he uttered the following:

“Since 1991, when I was 17, I’ve been dreaming of Macedonia becoming a part of Europe. Now, 27 years later, I am addressing the European Parliament as prime minister, on behalf of my people, in my Macedonian language. We are grateful for this historic moment and proud of having a chance to realise this,” he said.

Parliament President Antonio Tajani reassured him that “you will have our support, your country will have our support” in efforts to join NATO and the EU and bolster stability in the Balkans, one of Europe’s poorest regions, riddled with lingering ethnic hatred and unresolved problems.

And that’s about as good as it gets. As there is a small glitch. After years of failed, UN-sponsored talks on how to resolve a name dispute between Macedonia and Greece, Zaev and Alexis Tsipras struck a historic deal in June, agreeing to the name “Republic of North Macedonia”.

But the deal is opposed by Macedonia’s right-wing opposition VMRO, a party that is part of the EPP family and had been in power for a decade, before Zaev took over. Greece’s opposition party is not particularly supportive of the deal either.

And in Macedonia, the deal needs to be ratified in a crucial referendum on 30 September. Polls indicate that around 41% of Macedonians, including the Albanian minority that’s overwhelmingly in favour, support the deal.

Should the agreement be rejected in Macedonia, frankly, there are few options left, and the small, landlocked country will remain a source of instability.

With that in mind, Zaev’s inspired speech was probably addressed to the audience back home, as much as to the Europarlamentarians.

But will it be enough?

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Views are the author’s

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