“A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece,” said former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. The “cake” serves as a metaphor which can be applied to any resource or goods – in this case, it can surely be used pertaining to the Prespa Agreement reached between the Republic of North Macedonia and Greece in 2018 which in turn ended the long-standing name dispute between both countries.
Introduction: North Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic Aspirations
After the declaration of independence in 1991, the Republic of North Macedonia had clearly emphasized its commitment to achieving its key strategic goals – full-pledged membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Through the implementation of comprehensive and complex reforms, the country reaffirmed itself as a reliable partner and strong ally to both the EU and NATO with a clear vision for fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
The most significant accomplishment in recent years which gave way for both maintaining and deepening the reform momentum in regard to good-neighborly relations, regional reconciliation and cooperation is the historic Prespa Agreement between North Macedonia and Greece.
The Prespa Agreement between North Macedonia and Greece
The EU has continuously indicated that the settlement of open bilateral issues, as well as fostering bilateral and regional cooperation were key pre-conditions for North Macedonia to begin EU accession negotiations and subsequently become an EU Member State. As a result, guided by the strong determination and impetus for guaranteeing a European future for North Macedonia and its citizens gave way for the signing of an agreement which allowed for resolving disputes and fostering regional alliances.
In terms of the popular opinion on this issue, an NDI poll conducted in 2018 indicated that nearly six in ten citizens believed that the Prespa Agreement that changed the constitutional name of the country was necessary for Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, North Macedonia managed to create a true success story in the Western Balkans on bilateral dispute resolution which was enabled through constructive dialogue, effective cooperation and compromise.
The Prespa Agreement, signed on 17 June 2018 between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Greece under the auspices of the UN, ended the almost three decade long dispute between the two countries and allowed North Macedonia to realize its aspirations for joining NATO and the EU. The foreign ministers from both countries signed the agreement which officially re- named the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia.
The Prespa Agreement clearly emphasizes commitments by both parties to strengthen, widen and deepen their bilateral relations and to lay down firm foundations for entrenching and respecting good neighborly relations, and for developing comprehensive bilateral cooperation, while seeking to reinforce and upgrade bilateral cooperation to the level of strategic partnership in areas such as political relations, defense, economy, agriculture, commerce, civil protection, energy, investments, trans-border cooperation, and transport. Moreover, it demonstrates both parties’ affirmation of the need to strengthen peace, stability, security and further promote cooperation in Southeast Europe, and to strengthen the atmosphere of trust and good neighborly relations in the region and permanently put to rest any hostile attitudes.
The Prespa Agreement brought about a change to the constitutional name of the country to the “Republic of North Macedonia,” however it is important to emphasize that the nationality of its citizens as well as the official language spoken in the country remained Macedonian. In the terminology guideline published by the Government of North Macedonia, it was stipulated that when referring to the ethnic or cultural identity the adjective “Macedonian” is correct, while “North or Northern Macedonian” is incorrect; when referring to the country’s citizens, they are to be referred to as “Macedonian citizens” and “citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia”; the ethnic Macedonians would be referred to as “Macedonians,” however “North Macedonians” is absolutely incorrect. Therefore, it is important to emphasize the official position the Government of North Macedonia which had stipulated that the Macedonian identity has been preserved, while the Macedonian language has been reaffirmed with the Prespa Agreement. The signing of the Prespa Agreement attests to not only of efforts to overcome the legacies of the past but also to the significant concessions made by both the Government of North Macedonia and its citizens as their direct contribution to fostering regional tolerance. However, in order to be able to feel tangible benefits from this agreement, both parties must do their utmost to continuously act with regard to mutual respect, trust, transparency, compromise and tolerance. Only when taking actions in compliance with core European values, bilateral relations can then be further advanced and can contribute to preserving regional peace and stability.
North Macedonia becomes the 30th NATO Member Country
North Macedonia’s path to joining NATO was both demanding and lengthy. However, after the singing of the Prespa Agreement in June 2018, the following month at the NATO Summit in Brussels, North Macedonia was invited to start accession negotiations for NATO membership. Eventually, on 27 March 2020, North Macedonia became the new 30th member of NATO after it deposited the instrument of accession to the U.S. State Department in Washington. The ratification of the Prespa Agreement gave way for securing membership in NATO and in turn achieving a strategic goal for North Macedonia since its independence in 1991.
North Macedonia has been long considered a reliable ally and active contributor to Euro-Atlantic security and stability, including through active participation in NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The U.S. State Department had noted that North Macedonia’s NATO membership will support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability across the region. Therefore, it is essential to underline that NATO membership is the strongest guarantee for the stability and security as well as maintaining the territorial integrity of North Macedonia.
EU Accession Prospects for North Macedonia
North Macedonia has demonstrated preparedness to start accession talks with the EU, having achieved great success in overcoming bilateral disputes and achieving timely reforms in key areas. The European Commission has continuously praised the country for its reforms and for positively reverting back onto the path of Europeanization and democratization following years of political turbulence. Thus, it had repeated its recommendation in 2020, initially issued in 2009, for North Macedonia to start accession talks. Unfortunately, despite the strong support by EU Member States and numerous arguments to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia, as a result of a blockade imposed by one EU Member State, the country has not yet been given the green light to hold its first open intergovernmental conference and kick-start accession talks. The current trio Presidency of the Council of the EU made up of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia have stated that they will work closely together over the 18 month period to fulfill the joint strategic priorities as they are all aware that EU enlargement with Western Balkan countries remains a priority for the EU. It is vital to note that the accession process must be based on trust, openness and clear commitments by both the EU and North Macedonia, as this represents the correct way to ensure credible reforms, greater regional cooperation and faster integration of the country into the EU.
The Way Forward for North Macedonia
The Prespa Agreement serves as an integral part of advancing the Euro-Atlantic integration of North Macedonia as it enabled for a much needed restart of the accession process to the EU and NATO.
The European project was created so as to bring and preserve peace and stability in Europe, as well as to facilitate closer cooperation among countries at both bilateral and regional level. A credible EU perspective remains the strongest incentive for North Macedonia to conduct comprehensive political and socio-economic reforms. Despite the challenges introduced on the accession path, it is crucial that North Macedonia does not stagnate and continues to advance the national EU reform agenda.
Enabling for a credible perspective for full-fledged and merit-based EU membership is of political, security and economic interest for the EU. When faced with global challenges and deep divisions in uncertain times such as now, that kind of support would eventually provide to be a geo-strategic investment in a more secure and united Europe.