By Tomica Stojanovikj*
In 2016, when I first started to discuss the topic of emigration in meetings with young people in North Macedonia, they would tell me that they would prefer to move to Western EU countries than stay in the country. Most were disappointed with the situation in the country, mainly with the lack of decent jobs to compete for, but also with the “state capture” of public institutions, judiciary and the media.
At that time in North Macedonia, journalists were being threatened and attacked because of their reporting. Thousands of people were illegally wiretapped. In every corner of the country, failing public policies were visible, from health to education; young people had every reason to feel hopeless.
One particular reason for this hopelessness was the widespread conviction that things would not change any time soon. Or at least not soon enough to make a difference on whether they decided to stay or leave the country.
This was in particular the case over the so-called “name” dispute with Greece, as leaders in Skopje and Athens were then exchanging nationalistic statements and provocations on a daily basis.
But what troubled me the most was that too many young people believed this issue was larger than just the leaderships in Athens and Skopje. They saw this dispute as an excuse for the EU to exclude our country from being part of the Union.
I remember pushing strongly against these dark thoughts. I argued that the “name” dispute with Greece did not emerge as part of our EU accession process. It started in the chaos of the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War and with the fall of a bipolar global order.
I argued that the EU accession process could in fact help us to solve this issue. For years, with colleagues, friends and family, I argued for solving the “name” issue and for moving towards the transformative part of the EU accession process. In reality, this was much more difficult and much more important, as it included reforms that would turn North Macedonia into a society that my generation of people would want to live in.
By 2018, citizens were taking to to the streets demanding changes, civil society pushed for these changes and politicians, with the help of friends in the EU and the US, managed to finally resolve the dispute with Greece.
As that happened, many in North Macedonia felt it would allow us to move on with the EU accession process, and with reforms and transformation. For the first time in my adult life I was meeting young people in North Macedonia who were somewhat hopeful about the future.
With the French objection, while it soon became clear that the road ahead would be bumpy, for many of us, it was still worth pursuing. The French argument about the need for a new accession methodology was, however frustrating at the time, to some extent valid. I remember telling friends that things had to change in the EU accession process in order for North Macedonia not to turn into EU accession frontrunners like Montenegro and Serbia.
We are now in autumn 2020. The name issue with Greece is far behind us and the new accession methodology is in place. Journalists are no longer being physically attacked and there are no reports of illegal wiretaps. North Macedonia is a full member of the NATO. As the October 2020 European Commission report noted: “North Macedonia [has] continued to implement EU-related reforms“ and “efforts continued to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.”
But the gap between North Macedonia and the EU average when it comes to human rights, the economy, prosperity, education and environment is still wide, and keeps pushing too many young people to leave.
Meanwhile, instead of focusing on working hard to bridge that gap, North Macedonia is faced with a new obstacle emerging from our neighbour, Bulgaria. It is one that concerns and questions the history and language of Macedonians, and one that I and many people whose opinion I respect simply cannot explain.
Unlike the issue with Greece, this dispute did not emerge in the chaos of the 1990s. It has instead emerged as an issue within and because of the EU accession process. And it goes against core European values and the EU’s tradition of (sometimes) disagreeing on history.
At the conference about migration held under German presidency last month, I shared my expectation that the majority of EU member states, led by Germany, would come together on this issue raised by Bulgaria – to defend core European values and prevent any attempts to turn the EU accession process into a process where such issues are created and championed.
After the conference, many experts in the field, not just in North Macedonia but throughout the region and Europe, shared similar views. Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, ESI, compared what Bulgaria is asking from North Macedonia with “Germany insisting that Austria acknowledges German roots, threatening ‘tensions’ if it doesn’t. Sweden doing this to Norway. Czech telling this to Slovaks.” Michael Martens, a German journalist and a Western Balkans expert, said that, “had unity on historical narratives been a prerequisite for joining, the EU would have exactly zero members.” Florian Bieber, a coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), warned that “the largest damage is for the EU itself. The union is based on the recognition of diversity and difference.“
Knaus also offered a solution that he described as an “obvious” one. He suggested that “Bulgaria and North Macedonia to agree to differ on their views of history. Just as (most) Brits and French differ in their views on Napoleon. Or (most) Protestants and Catholics in Ireland in their views of William of Orange. That is normal in the EU.” [The Dutch prince deposed England’s last Catholic monarch, James II, in 1688 and imposed Protestant rule on mainly Catholic Ireland.]
In North Macedonia, as is the case throughout the Western Balkans, there is a need for more normalcy. Alternative is a path of escalation of a conflict between Skopje and Sofia, which as Martens noted “might seem comical. But it could endanger (what is left of) the entire concept of EU enlargement.”
Ahead of this week’s Berlin Process Summit, jointly hosted by Sofia and Skopje, on behalf of all young people in North Macedonia, the Western Balkans and Europe, I hope the EU leaders will choose a path of normalcy. It would be high time.
*Tomica Stojanovikj is a youth activist from Tetovo, North Macedonia, currently enrolled at the ERMA Programme at the University of Sarajevo.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.