A Win For EU Integration

Greece makes a deal with its neighbor to change the country's name to North Macedonia.

In late January, following close parliamentary votes in Athens and Skopje, the world’s newest state formally came into being. Most countries, aside from Russia, welcomed North Macedonia’s advent as an important step in reducing instability in Europe’s most volatile region. Known officially for the last 28 years as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” the small Balkan country of 2 million immediately declared its intention to join NATO and the EU—moves to date blocked by Greece, which saw the name Macedonia as implying a territorial claim on its own province of Macedonia.

“Today we leave the isolation of the past behind us,” tweeted North Macedonia Defense Minister Radmila Shekerinska, who hopes her country will be admitted as NATO’s 30th member next year. Fitch Ratings expects GDP growth to strengthen to 3.2% this year from 2018’s 2.3% and has affirmed its credit rating at BB with a positive outlook.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his North Macedonia counterpart, Zoran Zaev, faced fierce opposition from their respective nationalist oppositions and violent demonstrations from protesters who felt too much was being given away. North Macedonia must abandon all historical claims to the ancient Macedonia, while Athens has promised to help its much poorer neighbor.

Observers say the EU must support the rebranded state if nationalists in either country get the upper hand or if Tsipras’ government falls. If the center-right New Democracy opposition, which voted against Tsipras’ deal, then takes power, it might still block EU accession, in contravention of the agreement. Brussels will decide in June when to open negotiations, having postponed a decision last year.

The Athens-Skopje deal represents a much-needed win especially for the EU, which lately has taken its share of battering, especially as a result of Brexit. “The name change was a monumental step taken primarily for the purpose of EU integration. The EU’s credibility now rests on doing the honorable thing,” tweeted James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans specialist at the London School of Economics. Delay could destabilize the region.

Still, with European elections set for May—and anti-Brussels parties expected to perform well—followed by Greek parliamentary elections on or before October 20, the risks are very real.