French veto on North Macedonia fuels debate in Greece

French veto on North Macedonia fuels debate in Greece

We had half-predicted it in our article last week. But only half. We had written that last week’s European Council meeting was to be an important one because it was to decide upon issues beyond the European Union’s borders and that the hot potato of the meeting was to be Turkey and its complicated relations with the EU, which boil down to the refugee problem.

We were wrong. Yes, Turkey was on the agenda, there was Brexit, too. But the real shock came from the troublesome eastern corner of Europe, from the Balkans. Last week’s European Council meeting was expected to endorse the opening of EU succession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Bearing in mind the energy that was put in mainly by the Germans to add these two countries into the EU’s enlargement project towards Eastern Europe, the approval by the EU27 group was taken almost as a given.

But surprisingly, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to use his veto and blocked the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. It was a big shock to everyone and brought upon a heap of criticism against Macron that his decision was a “historic mistake that weakens Europe,” that his move was an act of “neo-Gaullist intransigence, that torpedoed the enlargement of the EU and is destabilizing its Balkan backyard.” Calmer voices, though, argued that the French were always in favor of the “deepening of the EU instead of the constant enlargement as pushed by the Germans.” That his move prevented the increasing German influence in the Balkans or even the expansion of the American dominance in the area while others blamed Macron for pushing the Balkans into the arms of Putin and towards more nationalistic regimes elected by a disgruntled electorate in the countries.

In the case of Greece, the French veto unleashed a fierce row between the present conservative government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the previous leftist government of Alexis Tsipras, whose party, Syriza, is now acting as the official opposition. It was under Tsipras’ government that a deal giving an official name to the Republic of North Macedonia was agreed, after an age-old dispute with the Greeks over the use of the name Macedonia, which had forced the country to use an interim name as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia of FYROM.

The negotiations lasted for months and finished in January this year. The agreement was signed in the area of Prespes on the border between these countries hence it was named the Prespes agreement. But the agreement was fiercely criticized by the then official opposition of the New Democracy party, which included it as one of the main issues of its campaign leading to local and general elections in May and July this year. New Democracy as well as other opposition parties blamed the then government for succumbing to pressure from the EU and the Germans.

After last week’s developments, non-Syriza politicians and commentators have found a rich source of arguments to lash out against the former Syriza government. They are questioning the real reason why Greece had to rush into solving the “name problem” with FYROM.

“They had told us that if Skopje was attached to the Euro-Atlantic block, the stability of the area would be secured, that, otherwise, it would fall under the Russian sphere of influence, that if Greece sorted out its problems with Skopje then it will be rewarded by NATO and the EU. Look what happened now,” wrote a well-known Greek commentator.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis prefers to keep a distance from the debate whether Greece gave up too much in terms of ethnicity and language to the North Macedonians without getting anything in return. But, truth be said, a fierce campaign against the deal helped Mitsotakis in securing his impressive electoral victory. But it is also true that the French veto does a lot of damage to the Syriza party who, against all, insisted on pressing ahead with the deal and defended it fiercely. This is a bad period of Alexis Tsipras’ party. The luster is going, and they need to look for a new ideological platform if they want to re-inspire their old followers.