Away from the limelight of Europe’s political arena, the fate of a country is being decided this weekend. If it sounds dramatic, it’s because it is.
Macedonians are voting in a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to support a deal on a new name between their country and Greece, hammered out between reform-minded Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras.
If the result supports the name change to Republic of Northern Macedonia (a definite improvement on the unwieldy Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia/FYROM), the doors will open, as if by a miracle, for it to waltz into NATO at its next summit and to open EU membership negotiations.
Conversely, if the deal falls through, no one – literally no one – has any idea what to do next. There is no Plan B. FYROM may wait another decade or two, risking stagnation, popular revolt or even a renewal of ethnic tensions, so deeply ingrained in the Western Balkans.
It is worth noting, however, that conservative opposition parties in both countries – both members of the European People’s Party – oppose the deal, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Before Tsipras and Zaev, both had been in power in Macedonia/Greece for years but talks on a possible name made no progress whatsoever.
So, a lot is at stake. The name issue is very sensitive in both countries. Many, if not most, Macedonians feel they have been unjustly held back by Greece, its more powerful neighbour and already an EU and NATO member.
But let there be no mistake: it is just as emotional in Greece, whose northern residents feel they have been cheated by Macedonians who brazenly took their own name for their country. Macedonia, in case you didn’t know, is a geographical and historic region in Greece.
Hence all the fuss.
The fact that Zaev’s conservative, nationalist predecessors played up the ‘historic Macedonia’ theme, named Skopje airport after Alexander the Great and erected monuments of Greek heroes in the capital did not help.
The new authorities in Skopje were obviously mindful of all the sensitivities. The referendum question does not even mention the new name and is phrased as follows:
Are you in favour of the European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?
EU politicians in Brussels are praying for a Yes outcome. The authorities in Skopje, looking for any safeguards they can find, have said they would deem the referendum result acceptable if there is a low turnout, possibly around 40%.
So, spare a thought for Macedonia and at least check the referendum result on Monday.
Supporting more than 4.7 million jobs here, US companies are committed to Europe. With a new legislative term approaching, now is the time to bring new ideas forward. That’s why AmCham EU has identified four priority areas we believe should drive the political agenda over the next five years.
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Sunday’s referendum to settle the name dispute between Athens and Skopje. Macedonia announced it will accept the referendum as valid even with low turnout.
Views are the author’s