An Irish case for Macedonia?

, by Eva Jovanova

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An Irish case for Macedonia?

This Sunday, Macedonian citizens are expected to go to the polling stations and decide on changing the country’s name to North Macedonia with the promise of NATO and EU membership.

The referendum on the name deal between Greece and (North) Macedonia inevitably reminds me of one other referendum. That other referendum took place some forty years ago, and after it passed, its implications seemed analogous to the implications this referendum will have for the constitution of Macedonia. To many of you, it probably rang a bell already: the referendum I am referring to is the one in Ireland (this time, not Northern) in 1972 when most of the country’s population vehemently supported EEC (which later evolved into what we today know as the European Union) membership.

Ireland with its referendum had to “freeze” parts of its Constitution that granted everyone born on the island the right to be a part of the Irish nation and the right to express a desire for peaceful political unification of Northern Ireland and Ireland. Thus, Ireland in 1972 had to officially give up on more than a sixth of its territory as guaranteed by its Constitution, which at the same time was the home of almost two million people – more than a third of the current population of the Republic of Ireland.

Compared to the Macedonian case, in which there are only historical examples of exodus and ethnic cleansing of Macedonians from Greece dating back to the Greek Civil War in the late 1940s, in 1972 in the peak of “The Troubles”, nationalism and violence were Northern Ireland’s reality with a death toll exceeding 3,500. The deal also vaguely obliges Macedonia to use more neutral adjectives when referring to its ancient past, a subject on which there is no global academic consensus yet. It, however, has no implications on Macedonia’s current borders or citizens.

As one Irish saying goes: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish… you’re lucky enough”, the Irish have indeed been very lucky. Today, Ireland is one of the most pro-European countries, with over 90% of its population approving of EU membership. The reason for this EU fervour lies within the abundant benefits Ireland has enjoyed throughout the years thanks to the Union. Since becoming an EU member, Ireland has received almost €6.5 billion in investment from the European Social Fund only, steadily investing in people’s employability. When unemployment was the bane of the Irish society, the Union played a crucial role, and consequently, in the 1990s, Ireland’s unemployment rate plummeted from the highest to the lowest in the EU. Ireland constantly profits from EU’s agricultural policy and EU’s research and innovation funds, and trade has been an incremental economic boon since its accession to the Union.

But, can Macedonia, a country of two million, whose current borders were first drawn as late as 1943, within the territory of Yugoslavia, learn a lesson from the Irish scenario? Macedonia’s unemployment soared after the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation, with an average unemployment rate of 30% that left much of its population on the verge of poverty. The country is currently experiencing one of the greatest “brain drains” in Europe, and lately, it has been considered a high-risk destination for foreign diplomats due to its rapidly deteriorating air quality, which last year infamously put Macedonia on the top of global lists of countries with the most poisonous air.

On a more positive note, according to the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, Macedonia is the eleventh country in the world that investors should be looking at this year. However, without being a member of organisations such as NATO and the EU, Macedonia has little to guarantee its stability. Being a multi-ethnic state (around 25% of the population is ethnic Albanian) in the Balkans, a region notorious for its instability at the end of the 1990s, does not seem to enhance Macedonia’s reputation among potential investors.

Most of Macedonia’s trade links are with EU member states, with only Germany adding up to almost 50% of Macedonia’s export. Opening Macedonia’s market to all 28 (or soon to be more) EU member states will enhance trade turnover, and the free movement of people and capital will be a great benefit for the Macedonians already living in the EU – according to some data, the Macedonian diaspora transferred up to €25 billion to their families in Macedonia in the last 15 years. The effects that EU membership might have on a potential extension of brain drain have luckily been mitigated by the beginning of this decade. Once the EU opened its labour market to Bulgaria, whose denial of a Macedonian nationality made getting a Bulgarian passport for Macedonian citizens effortless, many Macedonian citizens applied for Bulgarian citizenship and joined the European labor force.

In the Irish case, if one looked for an argument to oppose the referendum, a hardcore nationalist could reach out to a more concrete one – giving up on territory and population which was guaranteed by the country’s Constitution. Opponents of Macedonia’s referendum, however, challenge the name deal only with abstract nouns, such as losing an identity and depriving the (now vastly deceased) ethnic Macedonians who suffered the exodus in Greece at the end of the 1940s of their dignity. In a country fighting with abject poverty, holding to abstract nouns such as identity and dignity by perpetuating international isolation is next to ludicrous.

The voter turnout on Sunday has to reach over half of the eligible voters, adding up to around 900.000 voters, but the register is believed to be wildly inaccurate, making it very difficult for the referendum to pass. A significant percentage of the population, either biting into or selling clichéd nationalistic phrases, has announced it will boycott the referendum, making it even more difficult for the required turnout to be met. At the end of August, however, a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute instigated optimism among the population, with 57% of the participants stating they supported or somewhat supported Macedonia to join the EU and NATO under the name ”Republic of North Macedonia”.

EU and NATO membership are Macedonia’s crucial factors for stability that offer solutions to all of the challenges the country faces. If this deal doesn’t pass, Macedonia will lose 27 years of international mediation, together with the prospect of catching the next train for the EU. This Sunday, we might well see how history repeats itself – in the Irish scenario, it was a far cry from tragedy, so let’s hope that the referendum doesn’t end as a farce.

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