Greece completed its rushed and contentious ratification procedure for the Prespes Agreement in a vote delayed to January 25, aiming to resolve the Name Dispute between Greece and its northern neighbour Macedonia/FYROM (now North Macedonia) once and for all. The now-minority SYRIZA government and an oddball transient mix of independent and small party allies claimed 153 out of 300 MPs, with 146 against and one abstention. Oddly enough, this event occurred on the 4th anniversary of SYRIZA’s assumption of power, although all of Greece’s key ministers and much of the supporting cast have changed.
This agreement has clearly turned out to be the second hardest political challenge for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, ranking just behind his hard-fought and costly, but ultimately unsuccessful, struggle with Greece’s creditors in July 2015. Observers note his success on this issue was the result of Tsipras’ concessions to a smaller, less powerful negotiating partner, comparing it to his very clear failure to accomplish anything in talks with neighbouring Turkey over Aegean issues.
Over the course of the last year, Tsipras barely survived two no-confidence votes over the Prespes deal, lost his right-wing coalition partner who served as defence minister, while also sacrificing his former Communist foreign minister, who served as the country’s lead negotiator for the deal.
Tsipras steadfastly refused to consider a referendum on the agreement and worked to sideline public opinion, while at the same time still not opting for calling elections earlier than next October when his term ends. Most analysts doubt the current government can make it to the end of its term as Tsipras intends, although the Prespes ratification battle does not appear to have been the decisive blow to his tenure many thought it would be.
Greek political ramifications
The small majority Tsipras cobbled together had been foreseen for some time. With his SYRIZA party holding 145 seats in parliament, partners were needed. A hodgepodge of MPs from his former Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition partner and the slowly dissolving “The River” (To Potami) party plus a few independents provided the expected edge. The night before, a crowd of over 5000 was seen demonstrating passionately outside parliament, and that demonstration was broken up by police using tear gas, just as they had done with the massive January 20 demonstration.
The Prespes supporting MPs from Greece’s small parties largely fit into the category of endangered species, as their parties are generally in danger of not garnering enough votes to obtain seats in the next Greek parliament, whenever elections are held. A few of these MPs are seen as opportunists, hoping to extend their political survival in any way possible.
In the Greek context, substance mattered little in the ratification debate, as the number of supporting votes SYRIZA collected appears to be the only relevant factor. First of all, PM Tsipras essentially reversed himself when he stated that ratification would proceed at a measured pace on January 16 during the vote of confidence debate in Parliament. In fact, just days later the ratification documents were quietly tabled in Greece’s parliament, barely a day before the January 20 rally against the Prespes deal. It seems something convinced Tsipras that time was not a luxury he had.
Sloppy homework: Missing important signatures and revisions
The substantive complaints about the deal’s lack of balance, and the awarding of a “Macedonian” ethnicity and language to North Macedonia, seemed to not register on those voicing party line support for the deal, despite these issues’ substantial resonance with the Greek public, solidly against the deal, precisely for the specific concessions agreed by SYRIZA.
Rightly or wrongly, many in Greece see SYRIZA’s position on the Macedonian language and ethnicity as lingering remnants of Greece’s 1946-49 civil war struggle, when Greece’s Communist rebel militias favoured a unified “Macedonian” state which would eventually become a constituent member of Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including the sections of northern Greece the Greek Communists were fighting to retain after the German army retreated but eventually lost.
New Democracy’s President, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had been mulling the idea of calling for a last-minute vote of confidence but opted not to take that step.
In the debate, he told parliament the Prespes Agreement was a “minefield” that once ratified would be impossible to scrap and extremely difficult to modify, calling on the MPs to accept their “historic” responsibility and block the deal. He characterised it as nothing less than a “national defeat.”
Making a statement certain to send shockwaves to Skopje and Brussels, Mitsotakis claimed that ratification by Greece would not secure Macedonia/FYROM’s European Union accession. “Greece can, at any moment, veto the accession of Skopje to the European family,” he threatened. “If Greeks entrust me as prime minister, I will refuse to interpret the agreement in that manner.”
Former Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, the nephew of New Democracy founder Constantine Karamanlis, told parliament that the current negotiation cycle was held under “conditions of unjustified haste, when, obviously, others pressed for a resolution of this issue. But not Greece, of course.”
He added, “in conclusion, the government should respect the sensitivity and listen to the reasonable concerns of a large majority of citizens, as well as formulate, with its own initiative, conditions for a bare minimum of national understanding.”
Here are examples of the substantive objections raised by the main opposition party, New Democracy, and others, during the debate:
The ratification package arrived in Greece after the December 31 deadline laid out in the Prespes Agreement.
There was no signature by the sending country’s President, which seemed curious. President Gjorge Ivanov was of course strongly opposed to the deal.
While amendments had been approved and the votes secured in Skopje, the Greek parliament was working with an unmodified older constitution from Macedonia/FYROM, a version in which the agreed changes to the document had not been incorporated. Accordingly, the Greek MPs had to utilise the old constitution with an addendum containing amendments, something particularly curious.
Parliament was informed by the Greek foreign ministry that the document would not be changed/finalised before the Greek vote, while some opposition MPs demanded the final amended document to be a precondition of any vote.
Ongoing lectures and articles already circulating in Greece lay out a larger set of reasons the Prespes Agreement may be challenged in court and describe how citizens might launch the legal process. The deal is also reportedly under challenge in the courts in Macedonia/FYROM, championed by the main opposition party there, with a focus on the failed September 30 referendum there due to low participation, a point that Greek legal experts are also expected to stress, in order to categorise Skopje’s ratification process as incomplete and therefore invalid, annulling the ratification.
June’s Prespes Agreement specifies that the Greek ratification vote also constitutes Greece’s agreement to its northern neighbour’s NATO accession, pending ratification of its accession by all other NATO member states. Thus, the country’s actual accession is possible in 12-15 months.
Although NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has already cut every possible corner that he could to accelerate the accession process, once North Macedonia’s new name becomes official (the next step in the Prespes plan) the standard and somewhat technical process of formal accession negotiations cannot be circumvented. Even so, in view of his past performance and activist stance, Stoltenberg is expected to press his negotiators to work as quickly as is possible.
I welcome today’s ratification in the Greek parliament of the #Prespaagreement, an important contribution to the stability and prosperity of the whole region. I look forward to the future Republic of North Macedonia joining #NATO.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) January 25, 2019
Despite last June’s Prespes deal, EU accession negotiations for the newly-minted state of North Macedonia have been on hold for two reasons. First, all ratification processes set out in the Prespes Agreement needed to be completed between the two countries. Second, decisions at last summer’s June EU Summit, where some countries strongly opposed an immediate enlargement strategy, officially put Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s ambitious enlargement plans on hold until June 2019, when formal accession negotiations with North Macedonia will now commence.
This decision did not stop Hahn from launching a series of pre-accession information and training sessions and providing other preparatory support to demonstrate his commitment.
Mitsotakis’ remarks in Greece’s Parliament on January 24 will be an additional complicating factor in the EU accession process.
The #Prespa agreement resolving the name dispute between #Greece and soon to be North Macedonia is a historic breakthrough for the two countries, the region and Europe as a whole. I applaud the leaders on both sides for their courage and vision! @Zoran_Zaev @tsipras_eu 1/4
— Johannes Hahn (@JHahnEU) January 25, 2019
Return of The Ugly American?
The role of the United States in supporting the Prespes Agreement, as well as its perceived support for the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Skopje, has contributed to a visible rise in anti-American sentiment in Greece in recent weeks. The US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, had been cited as an unhelpful factor both in the parliamentary debate for ratification, by its opponents, as well as by various groups of angry anti-Prespes demonstrators.
One ratification debate speaker likened the work of the current US Ambassador to that of one of his predecessors, John Peurifoy, reviled in Greece for running the country like a protectorate (1950-53). One small anti-Prespes demonstration kicked off in front of the US Embassy January 24 and later that night, the walls surrounding the nearby US Ambassador’s residence were spray painted with anti-Prespes slogans.
.@SecPompeo: The United States welcomes the decision by #Greece’s Parliament to ratify the #PrespaAgreement. The United States applauds this historic opportunity to advance stability, security, and prosperity throughout the region. https://t.co/HTiepB2qk7
— Robert Palladino (@StateDeputySPOX) January 25, 2019
Hopefully, these sentiments are a temporary phenomenon.
Unknown individuals firebombed the house of SYRIZA MP Theodora Tzakri late January 23, in an attack believed to be connected to the debate on the Prespes deal. Her residence in Giannitsa in central Macedonia was attacked while her husband and child were home; the four bombs damaged the house’s exterior balcony. Two other attempted attacks on residences of SYRIZA MPs in Northern Greece were thwarted by police.