Who would have honestly thought until just recently that a resolution to the 27-year name dispute between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – which is to be called the Republic of North Macedonia in the future – and Greece was still possible? Courageous, dedicated politicians on both sides have achieved something great, even historic, with immense personal commitment. The Macedonian and Greek parliaments have since also approved the Prespa Agreement settling the name dispute.
The debates that took place in Skopje and Athens in the run-up to this were heated. National emotions boiled to the surface and fears were stoked up. The fact that this Agreement was reached is therefore certainly anything but a matter of course. Courage, foresight and perseverance on the part of actors on both sides ultimately brought about the necessary turnaround. Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev and their Foreign Ministers risked a great deal politically in their efforts to break this Gordian knot – winning a great deal for their countries and the entire region in the process.
The resolution of the name dispute is a shining example of peaceful conflict resolution among European partners. At the same time, this historic compromise paves the way for the Euro-Atlantic integration of North Macedonia. As part of the Agreement, Greece has undertaken to refrain from standing in the way of its neighbour’s movement towards the EU and NATO in the future. Moreover, both countries have agreed on tangible steps towards reconciliation and closer cooperation.
Since taking office almost two years ago, the Macedonian Government under Prime Minister Zaev has also achieved a great deal in the area of domestic policy. These comprehensive reform projects are now beginning to yield fruit.
The prospect of EU membership must remain concrete and tangible for Macedonians in order for Skopje to be able to continue along the path of reform on which it has embarked. The majority of the young generation in particular longs for Europe. A credible accession process always involves two sides. The EU must now also “deliver”, and successful efforts in the candidate countries must be complemented by concrete progress in the accession process. Warm words alone are not enough, otherwise the promise of accession risks becoming a hollow phrase. This is why the EU should now commence accession negotiations with North Macedonia as soon as possible.
There is no question that even today, 20 years after the end of the bloody civil wars in former Yugoslavia, the situation in the Western Balkans remains fragile. Organised crime and corruption continue to be a problem. The unhealed wounds of the past persist in the collective memory and are leading to tensions between countries and ethnic and religious groups. Many young people are seeking a better future abroad as the pace of change is too slow at home – and perhaps also because we in the EU have become too faint-hearted.
The European narrative has lost some of its credibility and appeal recently in the face of multiple crises and social upheaval in parts of our continent. The growing influence of other countries in the Western Balkans – above all Russia, China and Turkey – is ultimately also a reflection of our own weakness. The EU accession prospects of the countries of the Western Balkans are a terrific opportunity – also for the EU. What is more, seizing this opportunity wisely is in our very own strategic interests. If the EU were to fail in the Balkans, in a region that is so close to us in historical, geographical and cultural terms, then how should it be taken seriously as a global player?
The attractiveness of the European model – which combines democracy, freedom and the rule of law with security and prosperity – remains unbroken in the Western Balkans. In resolving the name dispute, Skopje has set the right course towards the EU and at the same time sent a clear message to the region, namely that nationalism and populism lead nowhere. After all, the approval of the name change also represents a rejection of the forces of nationalism in the Balkans.
At a time when populism and nationalism are putting the European model to the test, this Greek-Macedonian work of reconciliation is a genuine sign of encouragement for the rest of Europe – bringing people together instead of dividing them and promoting dialogue and compromise instead of national egoism. This is an example that all EU partners can follow.