Many European countries remain sceptical about the prospects of the EU membership for Western Balkans. There are, in fact, two blocs in the EU regarding Western Balkans. The first one, represented mainly by the Eastern and Central European countries, is strongly pro-enlargement, citing worries about increasing activity and influence of other powers in the region. The second one, represented mainly by France, would like to see more structural reforms and focus on the reforms within the EU itself before accepting new members. However, with sluggish accession process, uncompensated sacrifices and vague European position, the EU risks losing its authority and attractivity over the years. In North Macedonia, where the poverty rate is at 18,2 % (2), the European Union is still the beacon of hope and a source of great optimism. The prospect of the EU membership incentivised politicians to undertake political, judicial and economic reforms. Even though there is still a long way to go, North Macedonia has achieved tangible results. The implementation of crucial reforms has not been, however, the only obstacle in the process. Membership talks have been on hold since 2008 due to decades-old disputes with its neighbouring countries – first with Greece and now with Bulgaria.
Greece effectively vetoed accession talks between 1991 and 2018 because of an unresolved matter with the country’s name “Macedonia”. This at-the-time unsettled dispute revolved around the potential territorial claim on the region “Macedonia” in the northern part of Greece and the potential claim on ancient Greek culture. The dispute was finally resolved in 2018 with the Prespa agreement, Macedonia changed its name to “North Macedonia”, and Greece subsequently lifted its veto against NATO and EU accession talks. Based on this progress, EU foreign ministers gave the green light to begin EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in March 2020 in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemics. But the progress in the accession wasn’t long-lasting. Eventually, Bulgaria decided to block the agreement on a negotiating framework in November 2020, a crucial step that effectively put the whole process on hold again, based on its unsettled dispute with North Macedonia. The point of disagreement is once again history, identity and language.
Failing to break the stalemate in negotiations in the foreseeable future would further delay the already lengthy process and further deepen frustration among the citizens of North Macedonia. For many of them, the EU accession process seems to be a never-ending story with no clear roadmap on how to get to the dream destination. With no end of the stalemate in sight, the EU Commissioner Olivér Varhélyi even suggested “decoupling” North Macedonia and Albania in their membership negotiations, with Albania going forward alone even though North Macedonia has moved faster in the reform process. This statement was met with strong opposition from Eastern and Central European countries and North Macedonia itself. Pro-enlargement countries emphasised the progress in reform implementation in both countries and the threat to EU credibility in the region.