Greece and the Republic of Northern Macedonia: The (in)visible role of the EU

Daniela Irrera

1 July 2018

On 12 June 2018, the prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia signed an historic agreement on the new constitutional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which will change to “Republic of Northern Macedonia”. This is expected to end a dispute which has poisoned the relations between the two countries since 1991, and to contribute to stability through a strategic partnership. Additionally, it offers another opportunity for reflection on the actual conditions of the Western Balkans and their relevance for the EU.

As Winston Churchill stated, the Balkans “produce more history than they can consume”. No historical symbol, narrative, or event in this part of the world is isolated. Rather, each instance produces implications on the rest of the region and should be read in relation to many other occurrences. Since WWI (not to mention the previous era), the region has known a long list of peace agreements and settlements, cautiously based on the preservation of identities, on the balance of ethnic percentages, and on the need to transform the negative potential of disputes. All agreements have been celebrated by some groups and heavily criticised by others, based on the apparent assumption that any power-sharing settlement always creates a compromise and on the most evident awareness that only compromises are possible here. Both parts will clearly give up on some requests but focus on the benefits, depending on the rational consideration of what is on the table.

On the part of Macedonia, this is the third chance of state reform, after the independence from Yugoslavia and the Ohrid Framework Agreement. The main challenge for the country now is how the name issue will be used to define and assess citizenship’s rights and to definitively stabilise the relations among Macedonians and Albanians. The former are split into those who are happy with the name change as a proof of dominance, and those sceptical on its actual and dangerous multi-ethnic potential. Meanwhile, the latter are in favour of the agreement not primarily because of ethnic reasons, but rather for its pro-EU connotations. The Albanian majority has been represented by Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which has always supported an EU integration programme and presented the enlargement as a guarantee of greater stability.

Therefore, the risk for Macedonia is that a referendum could be delegitimised by the Macedonians (the majority), as a result of the will of the Albanians (the minority). However, the reality is that this agreement represents a benefit for all citizens living in the country and could be the definitive chance to eventually build an inclusive society.

Greece, meanwhile, also features diverse perspectives on the issue, reflective of a member state wishing to present a solid relation with the EU, but whilst also going through a troubled process of economic reconstruction. The country is perceived as the one which is expected to give more concessions. However, if the agreement will be fully implemented, Greece will receive enormous benefits in its foreign policy agenda. Not only will a protracted problem that has affected its role in the region and consumed economic and human resources be resolved, but Greece’s authoritativeness and credibility will significantly increase, as will the trust the EU places on the state.Therefore, the risk for Greece is that giving major concessions may be unpopular in some large parts of its citizenry. However, the Greek government can see the prospect of significant advantages to be gained in closing with the past and demonstrating to Brussels its value as an EU member state.

This analysis cannot be complete without considering how the EU has created the conditions for allowing the agreement. Despite the common perception that the US is or was the major player in the area, owing to its visibility in the 1990s during the conflict, the most recent developments have been possible only thanks to EU intervention.

As sustained by Enika Abazi in a recent article published on EuropeNow, the EU has invested significant amounts of its economic resources and political credibility in the Balkans, offering to these countries, other than the prospect of membership, also a ‘model to follow and the means to succeed the transition from communism to democracy’. The EU has adopted the US’s political legacy and tried to stabilise the countries, by reducing the potential for conflicts arising, promoting institutional reforms, monitoring political elections, fighting corruption and developing the rule of law. From the deployment of military and civilian missions to the implementation of Stabilisation and Association Agreements, a variety of tools and measures have been conceived and used.  Most importantly, the EU has offered local political elites a range of different ways to fulfil the Western conditionalities and criteria (upon which all Balkan countries are dependent), without compromising too much (but rather protecting) their ethno-national situations.[1]

The case of the Republic of Northern Macedonia perfectly fits the abovementioned approach and represents an excellent example of the EU’s ability to focus on the solution of ethnic disputes to build sustainable peace. In a period marked by the inconsistency of crucial policies (i.e. migration), member states’ selfishness, and widespread criticism of existing plans and measures, this represents at least a sign that the EU can still have leverage in the neighbourhood. Balkan states may have been shaped by the US intervention, but the Western Balkan region in particular would certainly not be at the stage at which it finds itself today, had it not been assisted by the EU.


[1] Enika Bazi, ‘EU’s Balkans Test: Geopolitics of a Normative Power’, 25 June 2018 [accessed 26 June 2018], available from:

Image details

Title photo caption: Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC and Johannes Hahn, Member of the EC in charge of European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations attend the signing ceremony of the agreement on the name issue at Prespa lake. From left to right: Federica Mogherini, Johannes Hahn, Zoran Zaev, President of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia and Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece.

Title photo credit: EC Photo

About the Author

Daniela Irrera

Daniela Irrera is Associate Professor of Political Science and IR at the University of Catania, where she teaches International Politics and Global civil society.

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