The European Union once again shunned Macedonia’s integration aspirations. Despite positive recommendations by the European Commission and the European Parliament, EU leaders failed to reach an accession decision on Macedonian membership. For 15 years and counting, Macedonia has been stuck before EU’s doors. As disappointing as it is, the latest EU letdown has important ramifications for the future of Macedonian politics.
At least three things became clear after the latest membership fiasco. For one, we must understand that in the absence of meaningful reform, no amount of naïve bargaining with the national interest will be enough to bring Macedonia into the EU. Second, multiple rejections and failures to consolidate EU unanimity demonstrate that the EU is unsure about the benefits from Macedonian membership. Finally, the failure to substantively distinguish Macedonia from Albania in terms of accession progress is a reflection of a broken accession process that undermines EU’s credibility.
You cannot substitute lack of meaningful reforms with naïve idealism
Despite the disappointing decision, there is merit to Macron’s resistance to Macedonia’s EU bid. Whereas the government led by Zaev gave in to virtually every demand by our neighbors, little was accomplished in relation to reform priorities. In fact, Macron’s decision to block Macedonian membership was partially driven by the failure of Macedonian officials to successfully reform the country’s institutions and to strengthen the country’s rule of law.
Macron said that new EU members must demonstrate a range of reforms in economic policy, human rights, rule of law and anti-corruption measures. As he made clear, Macedonia has a long journey before substantive progress in these areas is even possible.
The Macedonian leadership, led by the naïve idealist Zaev, believed that satisfying the ultra nationalistic demands of Greece and Bulgaria would be enough to convince European leaders of our readiness to become an equal member of the bloc. At least one European leader was not convinced.
When strategic vision and planning are replaced by naïve idealism and caving to foreign demands, the result is failure. That much became clear after Macron said no to Macedonian membership in the EU.
Zaev focused the entirety of his reign of power on undermining the Macedonian identity according to the demands of our neighbors. We ended up humiliated by aggressive neighbors interested in hijacking Macedonian national heritage and identity.
Zaev believed that bargaining away our Macedonian identity would have surely opened the way for Macedonian EU accession, by demonstrating the country’s readiness to embrace EU values. But without substantive reforms, his rosy idealism quickly turned gray.
Is It to EU’s Benefit to Welcome Macedonia?
The membership rejection has deeper roots than simply citing failures to implement sufficient reforms. After all, what is it that the EU can gain from Macedonian membership?
Of course, enlarging the Union would allow a more cohesive political bloc, one that is capable of deterring outside influences. It would consolidate a region prone to conflict and instability, and would provide ample opportunity for regional development.
But in order for the gains from potential Macedonian EU membership to be felt by all sides, the EU must envision tangible benefits from Macedonian membership. In a situation in which a country has one of the lowest GDP/capita rates in Europe and one of the most corrupt institutions
on the continent, it is difficult to imagine what benefits the EU can reap.
Macedonian leaders must stop and consider this question very carefully. We ought not to see the EU as an ultimate goal or as a reward for foreign policy concessions. EU membership should be based on mutual benefits, where both Macedonia and the EU gain from Macedonian entry. As it stands, adding Macedonia to the EU would create another problem child for the Union, with little benefits for existing member states.
Our path to prosperity does not begin and end with EU membership. Becoming a member state is only one stop on the way to progress. The path to becoming a prosperous country depends on the ability of Macedonia to embrace change and to fundamentally reorient its institutions and its entire system toward democracy, rule of law, and free markets.
If Macedonia hopes to win the approval of European leaders, our nation’s leadership must build successful strategies for addressing all outstanding issues that stand in the way of Macedonian EU membership. Only by doing so would Macedonia unanimously convince Europe that Macedonian EU membership could be beneficial for all sides.
A Broken Process: EU Needs to Decouple Macedonia and Albania
The fact that Macedonia and Albania were lumped into the same category is tragic. It is true that Macedonia has its set of problems, but Albania is in a league of its own. The country has endemic issues with domestic violence, terrorism, torture, a state sponsored drug industry, corruption, police brutality and an openly anti-LGBTQ culture.
At the very least, the naïve Macedonian leadership demonstrated a wholehearted verbal embrace and dedication to European values, even if they failed to translate any of that in practice. Their Albanian counterparts did not even get that far.
Some European leaders, such as Merkel, recognized that Macedonia has done more on its path to
EU membership. Yet this distinction fell short of decoupling Macedonia and Albania as one and the same in terms of EU ambitions. The EU must clearly separate the two countries if we hope to avoid stalemates in Macedonian accession as a result of Albania’s lack of readiness.
In Summary: Upcoming Elections and Macedonia’s Future
Macedonia is left hanging once more. It appears as though we are stuck in a cycle of perpetual political crises, failed EU attempts, and inconsistent governmental mandates. As disappointed as we all are, there is a lot of work to be done. Macedonia has an upcoming election on April 12th
2020, and it will be interesting to observe the political rhetoric and campaigning that happens.
The elections will be a great opportunity for Macedonia to institute substantive changes into the election model and improve its representative parliamentary system. An idea that has received a lot of traction recently is the establishment of a single-member district, which will make parliamentarians more accountable to the electorate as opposed to their political parties. In addition, an open list proportional representation system will give Macedonians a say in selecting candidates directly, as opposed to political parties choosing their own.
Furthermore, Macedonian politicians should prioritize updating the voter registration lists, in order to decrease the possibilities for election fraud. These changes will improve the state of democracy in Macedonia and will strengthen our country’s commitment to democratic norms and values. Instituting these changes will help Macedonia break free from an endless cycle of early elections and will make politicians closer and more accountable to the electorate.
On a broader level, Macedonia has to remain committed to fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and upholding political rights and freedoms. Joining an organization like the EU would certainly aid our efforts to create a prosperous and free country, but substantive changes must come from within.
Macedonia’s dysfunctional institutional system and its difficulties in improving the rule of law are major obstacles on our path to the EU and to general prosperity. Before we see meaningful reform being implemented, our dreams for joining the EU and becoming a thriving country will remain unfulfilled.
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