Failing to launch accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania is a historic mistake. Here’s how we should move forward

, by Nikola Donev

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Failing to launch accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania is a historic mistake. Here's how we should move forward
Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev shakes hands with the French President Emmanuel Macron. Image credit: Влада на Република Македонија

Breaking the pattern of bloodshed and longing for peace

The wild “Western Balkans”, an innately bureaucratic and political conception, have long been the periphery of the periphery of Europe. A space where the voices of the past govern the living. A region where both East and West meet and, throughout history, have colonized this space. The centuries-long occupation of the Balkans, firstly by the Byzantine empire, and later the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, have left the region without much experience in statebuilding - an endeavour that often ended in bloody internal conflict.

Ravaged by this colonial exploitation and internal bloodshed we became a battleground in both world wars. Following World War II, there was an attempt for brotherhood and unity in a socialist federation that came crumbling down at the end of the 1990’s.

In the modern post-socialist narrative of the Balkans, our hopeful aspirations for lasting peace have largely been placed in the project of the European Union. The process of enlargement, unique to the EU, has been difficult for the Balkan countries which have managed to enter so far. Although membership has proven to be beneficial for the citizens, it appears that with each successive Balkan country that enters the EU, the process becomes more difficult for the others.

Where is our place in Europe?

It is reasonable to raise the question as to whether people in the Balkans are considered Europeans. In the imagination of Western Europe, the Balkans remain a cacophony of problems and are often left out from the political term “Europe”. Racialization (a form of narrative building that divides people from the same race into subgroups) of Balkan people as “not completely European” or “different from Europeans” has created a discrepancy of the West’s image of Europe and that of the Balkans, where for Western Europe, the Balkans are politically seen as different from Europe even though geographically they are on the same continent. When French President Emmanuel Macron talks about his image of the EU as a “big house” we can be confident he doesn’t include the Western Balkans in this vision.

The failure of the European Council, at their summit in October, to come to a decision to begin negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania will have negative ramifications for a region that has been promised the reward of accession for its sacrifices. These sacrifices include North Macedonia overcoming the name dispute with Greece and the requested judicial reforms from Albania. Outgoing president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker described this failure to launch talks as a grave mistake.

The relationship between the Western Balkans and the EU has been difficult, since the EU has tolerated the rise and perpetuation of authoritarian leaders in the region in the name of stability, often at the expense of democracy. This has left the already inexperienced and fragile transitional democracies in a state of limbo, where the EU is promising them steps to accession with its actions telling a different story. This has contributed to enlargement fatigue among the people, but also risks the rise of eurosceptics.

For North Macedonia this is not the first time we have been dealt a blow to our trust in the euro-atlantic progress. After the NATO summit in 2008 the country slid into a decade long authoritarian rule under the then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose government alienated and isolated the country from the EU and did not make much progress towards solving our diplomatic disputes. Albania faces the same situation as we did in 2008, it remains to be seen whether it will follow a Gruevski-type authoritarian path, or whether current Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama will be able to hold the country together and continue the reform process as he declared he would.

How to move forward? We must do it together!

The question for the entire region, not just North Macedonia and Albania, is how to proceed forward in light of the recent disappointment from the EU. There are two possibilities: the slide towards euroscepticism and authoritarianism, or the acceptance of the need for cooperation and solidarity in the name of democratization - in short, more democracy. For many democratically-oriented governments in the Balkans, this requires the use of “militant democracy” where visionary democratic governments must balance between two seemingly paradoxical processes - the “politics of establishing democratic rule” and the “everyday politics of democracy”. This means that the government will be accused of breaking the law in a situation where it tries to establish democratic rule within institutions that have been created under authoritarian rule.

This is a characteristic of many transitional democracies where the government can find itself in situations where the establishment of democracy as an existing set of institutions clashes with someone else’s request for democracy as a method of legitimate decision making.

For the government of North Macedonia currently led by the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), this should have meant a more utilitarian approach towards implementing the reforms (judicial, administrative and other) that are being blocked in the political system because of lack of cooperation with the opposition party VMRO - DPMNE. Instead the government decided to repeat the 2008 decision of the former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (former leader of VMRO - DPMNE) when he called for early elections after the failure to begin accession negotiations at the NATO Summit that year. That was the first step towards a decade of authoritarian rule in Macedonia. Unlike in 2008, there was a clear path on what needed to be solved - the name dispute with Greece.

Now the situation requires North Macedonia to initiate deep-rooted reforms in its state apparatus (this includes public administration, the police and the judiciary). We have yet to see how the elections will play out, but what remains certain is that any future government must be dedicated to improving the democratic capacity of the country, something that no major party in our system has proven capable of accomplishing.

In a broader sense, this framework of democratization must push the region as a whole towards collaboration. If we are to have our lasting peace, we need to work together in order to prove to the EU that we can be competent state builders, but that is something which requires visionary democratic politicians - something that is currently lacking in many Balkan countries.

The discourse after the European Council summit has floated the idea of a “small (Balkan) schengen” or accepting the Balkans in the European Economic Area. This is an argument for a broader proactive collaborative diplomacy for the entire Western Balkans to prove to the EU that we can overcome our internal problems through our own capacities.

The decision of the European Council will prove to be a historic mistake for the EU, but we must also see it as an opportunity for our countries and the region to collaborate more closely because we are in the same boat. To echo the French writer Voltaire: WE must cultivate our garden.

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