The European Union on December 8 deferred a decision on opening membership talks with Macedonia after Greece shot the proposal down. In a statement, EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels said they would reconsider the issue during the Spanish EU presidency, which runs from January 1 to June 30, 2010. The statement praised Macedonia's progress in implementing reforms, particularly in relation to its fight against corruption. It urged Macedonia to do more to ensure the independence of judges. The main obstacle to Macedonia’s EU entry remains Greece – it claims that the name “Macedonia” implies that the country has territorial designs on the Greek region of the same name. These fears were the reason why Greece blackballed Macedonia from NATO membership in April 2008. The EU ministers said they were encouraged by recent positive developments in the two countries’ relations and stressed the need to resolve the name issue.
Analysis and forecast: increasing risk
Macedonia had hoped EU leaders would set a date for starting membership negotiations this week. However, the “name issue” with Greece has unexpectedly become a major stumbling block. Macedonia’s government also needs to do more work on ensuring judicial independence, fighting corruption and promoting political stability. Some progress has been made: The Balkan nation’s efforts to forge closer ties with the EU were rewarded when the 27-nation bloc decided to lift visa restrictions for Macedonians starting December 19. But now, it appears trouble is brewing on another international front: In a public speech, Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov asked the Macedonian government to clamp down on politicians and journalists who use hate speech against Bulgaria and its citizens. Borisov also demanded the Skopje government abandon claims that Bulgaria is home to a Macedonian minority, in compliance with the joint Bulgarian-Macedonian declaration of 1999. Of course, Bulgaria is unlikely to block membership talks, but its hardened tone suggests it will join Greece in demanding changes in Macedonian policy.
It should be mentioned that a prolonged delay in membership negotiations could trigger Euro-scepticism in Macedonia and could make political leaders ambivalent about reform. The EU could use the accession process as a powerful tool for changing the Macedonian government’s attitude and nudge it into resolving the problems with its neighbours.