Last June, in the picturesque lake region of Prespes, Greece and Macedonia seemed to set aside decades of hostility, as leaders from both countries signed an accord to rename the former Yugoslav republic. Under that eponymous agreement, signed in the presence of European and U.N. officials, Macedonia will become the Republic of North Macedonia. And now, after six months of trying to secure approval by both parliaments, a deal to resolve one of the most intractable — and to many outside observers incomprehensible — bilateral disputes in the Balkans is close to fruition.
After Macedonia enacted all necessary changes in its constitution, the Prespes deal is now very close to ratification by Greece as well, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras winning a vote of confidence in Athens on Jan. 16 — called because of disagreements in his coalition over the agreement. The name-change deal is now expected to be ratified by Greece later this week, which will pave the way for North Macedonia’s entry to NATO and the start of negotiations to discuss it joining the European Union.
After the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece’s northern neighbor took the name “Macedonia”—but Athens refused to recognize it, saying it gave legitimacy to territorial claims over the northern Greek province of Macedonia. (The U.N. calls it “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”) The dispute has led Athens to repeatedly block its neighbor’s attempts to join NATO and the E.U., a cause of concern for European leaders who want to strengthen those alliances in the face of Russian aggression.
Even though the dispute between the two countries is centered on the legal question of the official name of a country, it touches upon emotional issues of history and identity in both countries. For the citizens of what will soon be “North Macedonia,” the term “Macedonia” is a marker of their distinct national identity in the Balkans. For Greeks on the other hand, Macedonia is intertwined with important periods and personalities in a historical narrative that extends back to ancient times. Under the weight of still vivid memories of conflict and war during the 20th century, the two nations have found it impossible to reconcile on a jointly agreed understanding and use of the word ‘Macedonia’—until last summer. And still, the leaders of both countries have come up against deeply entrenched nationalist attitudes.
The E.U. has supported the agreement throughout all the stages of its negotiation, signing and ratification. For the E.U., the Prespes deal represents all that is good about multilateralism and the rules-based international order at a time when these values are under attack by nationalism and populism in Europe, and by President Donald Trump and Russia further afield. It clears a stumbling block in its enlargement to the Western Balkans and puts back on track its project of transforming this region by enmeshing it in its institutional and legal order. For the E.U. the Prespes agreement then is both a geopolitical victory and a vindication of its vision of how international politics should work.
But there are three problems with this narrative.
Due political process
The E.U. has chosen to ignore problematic aspects of a ratification process that has challenged constitutional norms and rule of law principles in both Macedonia and Greece. Because both Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev have razor-thin majorities in their parliaments, pushing through the deal in both countries has required political bargaining that has pushed the limits of legality.
In Macedonia, Zaev, who lacked the two-thirds majority in parliament to change Macedonia’s constitution, used both threats of judicial prosecutions for corruption and a questionable law of partial amnesty to induce opposition lawmakers to vote for his constitutional amendments. Opposition MPs in Skopje were reportedly under immense pressure by both supporters and opponents of Prespes, including foreign governments, to vote accordingly. Each side has accused the other of threatening physical violence or promising bribes.
In Athens, the situation is even more convoluted. Tsipras’s government survived the vote of no confidence in order to ratify Prespes, but its minuscule majority relies on some opponents of the deal, who were lured with the promise of government jobs. Instead, Tsipras expects to ratify the agreement this week by peeling off MPs from smaller opposition parties, potentially to be rewarded with inclusion in the electoral lists of his party in forthcoming elections. Tsipras has already been accused by the opposition in recent months for undue meddling in the judiciary, media and the army. Now, his patching up of ad hoc majorities for different votes in parliament has challenged norms of parliamentary and constitutional procedure and contributed to the further mistrust of the political systems by Greek citizens.
For the E.U., concerns over rule of law and due political process should be taken seriously—particularly at a time when many of its member-states struggle with authoritarianism and illiberalism. Meanwhile, all Balkan states that the E.U. hopes to welcome one day continue suffer from persistent problems of corruption and strongman politics. In a world defined by the struggle between liberal democracy and populism, process matters as much as content. The process through which Prespes is being ratified leaves a lot to be desired.
An unpopular deal
Second, both governments are pushing through Prespes against the wishes of large parts of their countries. In Macedonia, the government failed to win a consultative referendum on Prespes in September — a vote that the E.U. has chosen to ignore. In Greece all opinion polling shows a strong popular majority against the deal.
Protestors have staged massive demonstrations against the deal, including one on Sunday that was dispersed forcefully by police and that produced images reminiscent of the darkest days of the Eurozone crisis and the violent anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens. Just a few months before a European Parliament election where populists are expected to score gains, the E.U. seems yet again to be presenting itself as a bureaucracy bent on ignoring popular reactions and the sovereignty of weaker states.
Finally, even the geopolitical goal of stabilization of the region is endangered by the deal, precisely because the political mix in Greece and Macedonia is so volatile. In Macedonia the name-change is supported by a coalition of a minority of the dominant Slav-Macedonian ethnic group and Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority, while it is opposed by the majority of Slav-Macedonians. In other words, the deal pits a coalition of minorities against a majority of the majority. Such an arrangement is bound to reignite ethnic tensions and increase political polarization in Macedonia—the exact opposite of the E.U.’s intention.
In Greece, on the other hand, Prespes tarnishes public perception of the E.U., interrupting a period of slow and painful rehabilitation after the Eurozone crisis of 2010-15. In a country still scarred by the economic crisis and always susceptible to populist relapses, the rekindling of nationalism by an E.U.-sponsored deal runs against the E.U.’s interest of stability in a Eurozone member-state.
The E.U.’s support for the Prespes agreement flows from admirable ideals of European integration. But it is also another example of a bureaucratized mode of governing that often ignores political realities and popular sensibilities. Most of all, it reflects a self-congratulatory attitude that views E.U. accession and membership as a cure-all for complex ethnic, economic and social problems, but also tolerates bargains with questionable national elites and turns a blind eye to their methods as long as they achieve pro-E.U. results on the ground. At a time of serious problems with the rule of law in some E.U. member-states and popular upheaval in others, such an approach to Europe’s problems is short-sighted and self-defeating.