Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia hinted on 5 June, and again the next day, that he would consider calling early elections if the European Union does not provide the country with a date for starting accession talks. If he does so, he would be the second of last June’s Prespes Agreement partners to call early elections, following a path opened by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras after his SYRIZA party suffered a larger-than-anticipated defeat in the 26 May Euro-elections.
Although North Macedonia, under its previous name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, has been an EU membership candidate since 2005, the launch of formal accession negotiations was impossible until Skopje’s agreement with Athens last year resolved the so-called Name Dispute between both countries. In that deal, Greece agreed to withdraw objections to the accession of the newly-renamed North Macedonia to both NATO and the EU.
While the country’s accession to NATO is proceeding at an accelerated pace, the EU accession process has been less clear, and this has made Zaev’s position, as the leader who delivered the Prespes Agreement and opened the path for North Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, increasingly difficult.
EU member states have not reached consensus
Whether the EU will respond positively to Zaev’s hint of early elections remains to be seen, and most observers consider the EU’s lack of a firm commitment to immediate EU enlargement to be a result of disagreements between member states over broader strategic issues. Some member states are reportedly positive on opening talks with Skopje but not happy with Tirana’s current prospects and reform accomplishments, despite the Commission having recommended talks begin with both countries.
While Zaev was in Brussels on 5 June for high-level meetings, he was quite clear about the domestic political consequences of a go-slow decision by the EU:
“If we got a ‘no’ from the EU, we would immediately lose the majority in parliament, my government would be destroyed. We would have early elections, lose precious six months. The EU would lose credibility among our citizens, and this would be hopeful for the nationalist forces.”
The longstanding disagreement over the pace of enlargement between Germany on the one hand and France, supported by the Netherlands, shows little hope of immediate resolution. The French argument has been that EU structural reforms should precede further enlargement. The subject will need to be hammered out in June and July at various EU summits, and it is unclear a consensus will be reached.
Concerns regarding Greece
Zaev is undoubtedly worried about the prospect of his Prespes Agreement ally, Alexis Tsipras, losing his party’s majority in the Greek parliamentary elections on 7 July, as most polls indicate is likely. The main opposition party New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has repeatedly said it does not consider itself to be bound by the Prespes Agreement to accept North Macedonia’s EU accession without question. Mitsotakis has hinted on several occasions that Greek representatives under his leadership would be extremely strict in reviewing the documents and procedures regarding Skopje’s EU accession, whenever that occurs, leaving Skopje to expect a very rough ride, at the least. Accordingly, Zaev may feel the need to secure every possible concession before Tsipras departs and the EU commission leadership rotates later this year.
NATO ready for its 30th member
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Tirana and Skopje on 1-3 June accompanied by the North Atlantic Council (NATO country ambassadors in Brussels). Optimistic as always when dealing with North Macedonia, he gave the impression that it was only a matter of time for the NATO countries to complete the internal ratification processes needed to expand the alliance. While in Skopje, he said NATO is “ready to welcome” its 30th member. Stoltenberg was unwilling to state that North Macedonia’s admission is possible before early 2020, as just 15 of 29 countries have completed their ratification processes so far. Some sources from Skopje currently estimate that all NATO member ratification procedures could be finished by October 2019.