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North Macedonia's road to Brussels: Breaking the vicious cycle
Some fifteen years ago, while talking to another veteran in the EU integration process from the region, I complained to her: "We got the carrot chopped up into pieces." She commented: "Ours was shredded." If we were to meet now, I would probably say to her: "We got the stick. Although we deserved a big sweet carrot." Someone outside the "circle of European integration", would not be very clear on what we were talking about. As good students of European integration, we had learned the main narrative: that the policy of conditionality means receiving a reward ("the carrot") if you meet the requirements, and if you do not - you receive a penalty ("the stick").
The Macedonian example from 2020 showed (or confirmed) that things could go the other way around. If you meet a requirement, you may not get the carrot, but the stick.
New obstructions of new accessions
When Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004, Brussels sent us the message "The road to Brussels is through Ohrid". And we implemented the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended the 2001 inter-ethnic crisis. Two years ago, we received the message "The road to Brussels is through Prespa". And we changed the name (to North Macedonia), because Greece demanded it, despite the contrary ruling of the International Court of Justice. Last year, however, the road to Brussels was closed once again. Now Bulgaria has set its mind to change the Macedonian route to Brussels - this time via Sofia. You know what? No way. You know why? Because Bulgaria wants to change the Macedonian identity, abusing the EU accession process and imposing its own distorted version of history.
This version infringes not only Macedonian history, but also the history of the EU, including its anti-fascist roots. Bulgaria's unfounded demands have a number of consequences for North Macedonia's EU accession process, but also for the enlargement process overall. They affect the region and the EU, injecting poison - inciting nationalism and conflict, thus undermining stability.
Other EU Member States have so far managed to prevent Bulgaria from imposing this "new approach" on the accession process, but have failed to prevent it from blocking the process, which has led to a dead-end. At this point, the conditionality policy has been compromised, EU's credibility is lost, endangering at the very onset the new i.e., revised enlargement methodology. In order to be credible, the accession process needs to have a realistic perspective, and its conditionality policy must be merit-based. Furthermore, a vital question is how the EU uses the two basic instruments of accession that are in its hands - control of its dynamics and the agenda.
EU is not ready for enlargement
Currently, the process is slow and membership seems out of reach. The EU is simply not ready for new enlargement. With things as they are in the Union, functioning has become difficult and it does not want new, especially not - "problematic" members.
As for the agenda, over the years it has changed significantly for the countries in the region. In recent years, the EU has rightly put the rule of law front and center. However, such an approach is undermined by issues that are unrelated, contrary even, to the principles of the rule of law - such as the Bulgarian veto, which is now in the forefront of the accession agenda. Thus, one of the key conditions in the stabilization and association process - regional cooperation, instead of being a means of reconciliation in the region, has become an instrument of pressure by the countries of the wider region that in a more preferential position - EU Member States, onto those in the Western Balkans that are not.
Although the EU is not ready for enlargement at the moment, it still wants to have influence on the Western Balkans - for geostrategic reasons and to maintain stability. The new Enlargement Strategy indicates "intensified geopolitical competition", which mainly refers to the influence of China and Russia in the region, but also Turkey and the Gulf countries. Further on, Western Balkans will continue to be crucial for migration management. In competition with geopolitical issues and issues of stability, so-called. "Stabilocracy" is at play, as opposed to meritocracy, which would be beneficial to the rule of law.
Another side effect of shifting agendas is that issues such as the environment, energy, market, education, healthcare… which are of vital interest to the citizens of the region, have become secondary. The fact is that these issues are high on the regional agenda, however they do not dominate national discourses. What is predominant are parts of the EU agenda, but refracted through the prism of national politics – like the endless competition of political entities over who is (allegedly) more corrupt and, inevitably, who is the greater patriot.
Regression in the Western Balkans
The distorted conditionality policy of the EU has contributed to democratic stagnation or regression in the countries of the region. Political elites in the Balkans have become quite skilled at political partisanship. The borders were much more porous for illiberal democracy and populism than for the import of EU standards on energy efficiency, pollution… Formal reforms, lacking substance or implementation ("empty shells") are common. Elites compete to please Brussels (or some of its capitals) to gain favor or more money from the limited pre-accession portfolio, instead of being accountable before their own citizens.
Instead of taking a step forward, the EU and the Western Balkans have entered a vicious circle of mutual non-credibility.
North Macedonia could have been a positive example - both in terms of resolving disputes and prioritizing the EU-related agenda. However, with the new obstruction from Bulgaria, it is precisely the Macedonian example that became demonstrative of the reached point of hypocrisy in the accession process, which must be overcome.
Intermediate steps and alternatives
In the absence of a feasible membership perspective, and yet wanting to have an influence in the region, primarily to maintain stability, the EU has struggled for years on end to invent new "carrots" and to chop up the existing ones: small treats for small moves. In this effort, the EU has also prioritized regional cooperation, supporting the Regional Council and stimulating sectoral forms of regional integration. Regional cooperation is good; however, it is insufficient. Regional economic co-operation simply cannot deliver convergence with the EU. The region is connected to the EU in every way, the EU is a necessity for the region.
Finding complementary, facilitating, alternative and intermediate steps for EU membership has led to complex arrangements and confusing discourses. In addition to bilateral stabilization and association agreements, there are also regional agreements (regional economic area, energy community, transport community…). Accession negotiations are divided into more and more phases. Action plans, roadmaps, declarations, reports... are multiplying. The process mechanisms (especially after the new enlargement methodology) have become incredibly complex and difficult to present to citizens, who want to believe that EU membership is approaching and will solve all of their problems. The prolonged and disrupted process has resulted in obscurement of its essence and loss of its transformative power, which was so necessary and expected by the citizens of the region. Let us remind ourselves - the point was to share EU values and standards.
Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA) are now pushed to the background - and largely forgotten as an opportunity. In the meantime, there are suggestions and ideas for new frameworks, such as the European Economic Area (implying a new, not the existing, one). No one even tried to think through how the negotiations for such a new arrangement would go (including new potential obstacles, whatever the reason), what would be the additional benefits of them that the current SAAs and regional agreements cannot offer, but also when they would become available. Finally, why and when would the EU be willing to provide additional benefits, if, for instance, it is not currently ready to even allow abolishment roaming costs for telephone calls between the region and the EU, let alone to significantly increase pre-accession assistance?
Unfortunately, the discussion in the region about new arrangements is always much livelier than the debate, based on analysis, on how the existing agreements are being implemented (by both sides) and what their untapped opportunities are. What is even more lacking is a well-argued debate on long-term solutions. The duration of the intermediate steps and discussions on alternatives seems to perfectly match the timing of domestic election cycles and short-term political agendas. This political logic is the opposite of what both the EU and the region need - a long-term and consistent approach. We are caught deep in the trap of short-sightedness dictated by political pragmatism.
On the other hand, despite greater "ownership" of regional cooperation of entities in the region, it is largely divided by sectors and technicalized, and does not attract much attention among Balkan political elites. There is no common political position and voice from the region on important political issues, nor is there significant lobbying in the EU for jointly set priorities.
The shortest route - the greatest challenge
The first impulse after last year's disappointment in the Macedonian accession process could be summarized in the well-known saying from the region, loosely translated to "rely on yourself and your worn-out horse". A new narrative is emerging in the country: "We will implement the reforms ourselves, regardless of the EU." Quite contradictory, the parallel main political messages are that we cannot "do it" without negotiations with the EU or that we would manage to do it "with the speed of a snail" without the EU. The discouragement of Macedonian citizens is similar - new research shows that 56.1% disagree or somewhat disagree that reforms can be implemented without external pressure, while 42.1% fully or partially agree that the authorities have the capacity to implement reforms without external pressure.
The future of Macedonian society largely depends on how resistant the country will be to the new "shocks" coming from outside. On the other hand, this "external resistance" will primarily depend on how resistant Macedonia will be to its own internal challenges. The country needs stronger economic growth, which is impeded by an insufficiently competitive and innovative economy, as well as low investment in human capital, in a situation where a skilled workforce continues to flow out of the country. The development of the corridors (traffic, energy, telecommunication ...) is slow, and they are essential for a small landlocked country, while corridors in the neighborhood belonging to the EU rapidly developed with EU funds.
The balance in interethnic relations is mainly maintained through the division of power between the political elites, which, in turn, is linked to partisanship and clientelism, and they continuously put pressure and undermine the institutions. Despite maintaining a delicate political and ethnic balance, society is subject to divisions on social, ethnic and political grounds. Instead of a long-term vision and prioritization, as well as a quality process of adopting (and implementing) policies and their evaluation, the Macedonian government is in a frantic struggle to remove external obstacles and fulfill the plans that are of highest priority, which are, most often, short-term plans. They usually refer to the speedy implementation of the also short-term recommendations from Brussels - to the next report of the European Commission and to the next conclusions of the Council of the EU, but, in parallel - to show results in regards to election promises.
A fresh approach is needed
To be able to solve the numerous challenges, Macedonian society needs a new narrative, a new approach, completely opposite to discouragement.
Ultimately, we should acknowledge that the EU cannot simply come up with a recipe that refers to our lives and grant us well-being. We must have our own vision. In developing and implementing that vision, we should rely more on the use and support of what we have at our disposal than on complaining about what we do not have, because we risk losing the capital we have – human capital in particular, which is fighting for growth - here and now. To strengthen the rule of law, we need citizens with power and powerful institutions. We need the EU, but not as a replacement for our government, for our institutions, nor as a solution to all of our problems. We need to show the capacity of a partner, instead of a "consumer". This is a role that many EU actors would appreciate.
Therefore, we are the ones that must walk the road to Brussels, but not alone. This key message is also valid for other countries in the region, despite the conclusion that "there is no road leading to Brussels."
After the experience with Macedonia, it is unlikely that the European Union will be ready to "import" bilateral disputes. To break the vicious circle, the Balkans' offer of EU membership must be much more credible, based on the power of citizens and institutions, rather than the power of political elites. For changes in this direction, constant pressure from civil society is necessary - genuine, consistent and principled.
This blog is published as part of the regional initiative “Tales from the Region”, led by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies, in partnership with Macropolis, Lupiga (Croatia), Sbunker (Kosovo), Ne Davimo Beograd (Serbia), Analiziraj (Bosnia and Herzegovina), PcNen (Montenegro) and HAD (Slovenia).
*Dr. Malinka Ristevska Jordanova has been engaged in the EU integration process since the late nineties, holding high public administration positions in the Macedonian Parliament and Government. As State Advisor in the Secretariat for European Affairs, she chaired the MK-EU SAA Subcommittee on Justice and Home Affairs from 2002-2008 and the SAA Committee from 2008-2010 and was the coordinator of the national programme for the adoption of the acquis. She gave a special contribution to the candidacy of her country for accession to the EU, the fulfilment of the recommendations for starting accession negotiations and realising the benchmarks set in the roadmap on visa liberalization. Dr. Ristevska – Jordanova is a founder and former director (February 2011 - February 2017) of the Macedonian think tank European Policy Institute – Skopje, now being a non-executive member of its Management Board. In her research, Dr. Jordanova has focused on the application of the EU policy of conditionality in the region of South-East Europe, as well as on the transposition of the EU acquis.