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North Macedonia weathers a painful path towards an uncertain EU future

#North #Macedonia #weathers #painful #path #uncertain #future

After years of setbacks, disappointments and a name change, North Macedonia opened negotiations for European Union membership on Tuesday, despite rising domestic unrest as a nationalist movement threatens to reverse the process.

Over the weekend, the country’s government announced it had reached a compromise with Bulgaria in a long-running dispute that had served as an effective obstacle to starting talks on EU membership.

On Tuesday, officials from North Macedonia in Brussels take the first symbolic step to jump-start the accession process, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announcing the start of talks.

According to North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski, the 17-year journey has been painful and has sapped any enthusiasm for joining the bloc for many in the country.

The President was among a chorus of political leaders backing the recent French-brokered deal that paved the way for ending the historical grievance blockade with Bulgaria that requires constitutional changes, among other things.

The deal was the latest in a long series of bureaucratic hurdles and political compromises for North Macedonia since it became a formal EU candidate country in 2005.

“From the point of view of the procedure and the way many in Europe – especially Bulgaria in the last two years – are treating us, this is a clear humiliation,” Pendarovski told AFP in a recent interview in the capital Skopje.

– “Weak spot” –

And even as Pendarovski backed the deal adopted over the weekend, he admitted that patience with the EU was waning in his country and in the Balkans more broadly.

Protests in North Macedonia have intensified in recent weeks, with the country’s opposition rallying thousands to oppose new compromises with Bulgaria and the EU.

“In all countries of the Western Balkans, enthusiasm for the euro is waning,” said Pendarovski.

“Specifically speaking about North Macedonia, we have seen a 25 percent drop in the last 18 months.”

But forgoing a European future would leave countries like North Macedonia, with a population of just 1.8 million, particularly vulnerable to geopolitical headwinds in an increasingly polarized world, Pendarovski argued.

If North Macedonia and other Balkan countries remain outside the EU, then the region will be a “vulnerability” vulnerable to the intrusion of “malicious forces”, including Russia, Pendarovski said.

But the longer they wait to join the bloc, the more anti-European voices are gaining traction, fanning the flames of unrest in places like North Macedonia.

“I fear that maybe some populist movements will come to power and some anti-European leaders will take power in Skopje, and that will certainly not be good for the pan-European idea,” the president said.

– A new business –

Since declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, North Macedonia has faced a number of obstacles from its Balkan neighbors over historical grievances.

Despite the hurdles, the country continued its fight for international recognition, culminating in the official name change in 2018 to settle a decades-long dispute with Greece that paved the way to NATO membership.

But the door to the EU remained firmly closed, thanks to a brief delay initiated first by France, followed by an open veto by Bulgaria over a series of disputes involving history and language.

Sofia’s unexpected move was a huge blow to many in North Macedonia.

And even as governments in Sofia and Skopje came and went, North Macedonia’s path to the EU remained blocked.

The weekend’s agreement provided a way forward through a series of measures, including constitutional amendments and changes to North Macedonia’s educational curriculum on specific historical points.

But even as talks begin, the ruling government faces a political minefield.

Without a two-thirds majority to amend the constitution, the deal is likely to stall in Parliament, potentially sparking more political battles and fueling new unrest.

“While there may be a strong temptation to impose a bad deal now to stir up an already deadlocked process, the proposal in its current form is likely to achieve the opposite, more stagnation, more frustration and even destabilization,” wrote North Macedonia’s ex- Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov and analyst Florian Bieber in an editorial published last week.

In the capital, Skopje, protesters have been taking to the streets for weeks, and members of the right-wing opposition and left have banded together to block any new compromise.

“We don’t know what to say anymore, how many more agreements will there be?” said protester Marjanco Stoilkovski, 48, outside the Parliament in Skopje during a recent demonstration.

“We changed the name and now they are asking for something else,” added Vesna Nikolova from Skopje. “It’s very humbling.”

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