- Djordje Balašević, Do not break my acacia trees
Macedonia should not have to suffer shallow French diplomatic tactics and Europe deserves a much more systematic and serious approach to something so important.
The violence of the last few days did not need to happen, but it did, and it smells again like political profiteers will ride on the winds of change. Unfortunately, that wind almost never brings the very needed change for the better in our Paskvelija and this time it might bring back those that the demos wanted out of power just six years ago.
It is sad that the country has a political system in which the citizens almost daily feel their voice is not even considered, let alone heard. Something is very rotten in Paskvelija and needs to change before the violence escalates and the ugly ghosts from the recent past resurface. The street violence of two days ago was partially instigated by VMRO and Levica, spiced up by ethnic Albanian parties, but all of this was possible because the majority of the people felt the “French proposal” is damaging and the current EU diplomacy resembles the pre-Prespa referendum visits after which the EU promises were not kept.
Instead of pressure to accept a bad deal, the EU should have had a structured process and facilitated a genuine negotiation between Macedonia and Bulgaria outside of the EU accession path. And if we manage to stop the violence here, that is exactly what the Czech Presidency must do – separate the processes and remind Bulgaria that they have the responsibility to be a constructive political entity in the Union. To prevent escalation of the clashes, the decision-makers must hear the people, communicate with Brussels that they will take the last proposal as a base for future negotiations and demand a few things in order to reach an acceptable text and start the accession negotiations without preconditions.
The protests show that a one-sided deal is no longer an option, it is a security threat, can easily escalate and will require a serious political make-over.
And so much could have been done to prevent this, but it seemed easier to sell lies and hope people will not react beyond social media, but they underestimated the anger caused by the ignorance and the trading lightly with precious commodities (like identity, language, history, and culture) when deciding for the people without the people. I will not defend the violence, far from it, but I know we have to understand its origin to address the causes and heal. As a nation, as a country, as people.
The Bulgarian veto caused the fall of two governments already, so the political elites had to take it seriously and at least try to resolve the dispute in a professional diplomatic process involving the best of their conflict resolution experts and civil society activists. Instead, SDSM appointed a Minister who has no educational background in international relations, history, or philology. Osmani – instead of creating a strong negotiation team that would advise him in conducting the negotiations with both Bulgaria and the EU, decided to opt for press-conference diplomacy and to handle all the negotiations practically by himself. The top priority of the country’s foreign policy deserved a more inclusive and expert-informed process.
Another very big mistake, also a result of ignorance and incompetence, was that the negotiations with Bulgaria after Petkov got into power, were falsely presented as energized and new, when in fact there were no substantial negotiations, there were sporadic meetings, which were far from a problem-solving process. If they did not pretend to negotiate maybe the little capacity for courteous encounters could have been used for the roadmap, which was always somewhere in the pipeline and was never completed, nor followed.
To come up with a process design, they needed negotiation and dialogue-facilitation experts. They did not hire them as they do not have the vision or knowledge of what is needed. When you don’t know you don’t even know how much you don’t know. Then you ask and contract specialists.
They would have requested fact-finding assessments, specialist reports to be commissioned, compiled, and analyzed and submitted to the EU and especially the French team working on the proposal. The French played the time as a tactic, hoping that the lack of time will push Skopje into the Shakespearean dilemma which they will fix with “messaging and good PR”, thus copying the same failed mistake the EU did for Prespa.
Their last-minute proposal seems to have been poorly coordinated with the other EU Member States (MSs), but Macron put them in a corner and hoped for an easy win. If the current Proposal passes, many MSs will still have a bitter taste in their mouth, while their hands are tied diplomatically as they do not want to be the spoilers. Maybe some MSs will still express reservations as the Bulgarian bilateral demands enter the negotiation framework and people still recognize in them similarities to Putin’s narratives regarding Ukraine.
In light of this recognizable repeat of the diplomatic roadshow ahead, I want to address a few things which I hope will inform the way forward.
“Everything is in the hands of the Macedonian politicians”
In a recent interview for BGNES, the Czech Ambassador to Bulgaria, Lukasz Kautsky said that “Everything is in the hands of the Macedonian politicians”. And indeed, a lot is in their hands and therefore the last thing they should do, unlike what he says in the interview, is to accept this harmful and sloppy proposal. Due to the delicateness of the situation, maybe they understand that their decision has consequences for the political stability of their country, for allowing similar demands to block future enlargement, but even more for the future of the Union, which demands a candidate to violate many international standards and principles to eventually (not even immediately) start the accession negotiations.
If Mr. Kautsky did not express the official Czech position, now also the EU Presidency’s position, his opinion that this is the ONLY chance for North Macedonia to start the accession negotiations, should be refuted and an official Czech position would be then shared with the public in both countries. And if he presented the new Czech position, we need to ask ourselves why would the EU Member State that exposed the Bulgarian demands as dangerous (as revision of history should not be part of the accession process) abandoned their principled approach, as their concerns could only grow after reading the French proposal.
Instead, it seems the pressure is applied on the weakest spot – Skopje. Instead of Dealing with the Past (DwP) programmes and a red card for indecent behaviour for Bulgaria, the outcome of the French diplomatic effort is a fait accompli proposal, largely incorporating the Bulgarian demands, which requires the Macedonian side to violate many commitments, as well as many previous agreements on the respect for human rights and managing diversity.
If everything is in the hands of the Macedonian politicians, they should reject the French proposal until a new version incorporating their demands is drafted. Among those demands, I would advise them to include a provision for accepting the Macedonian passport within the EU with the right to work and live in the EU, so that Macedonians will no longer need to artificially declare themselves as Bulgarians to access the EU.
They should do that not for Macedonia only, but for the future of Europe. The EU should not allow its members (which undermine ECHR decisions, do not recognize minorities, and lures Macedonians into stating they are Bulgarian by issuing EU passports) to demand an effectively useless Constitutional change as a precondition to start accession negotiation.
It is also not true that it all depends on the Macedonian “yes” or “no”. The EU MSs have not yet voted on the proposal, and it is possible that some will still express their reservations and not allow the version submitted to the Council to pass, as was the case with Czechia and Slovakia in 2020. Therefore, as much as EU diplomats want to exert pressure on the Macedonians, we need to take many of these statements with reserve, especially as we have been there before, and we know the EU is not a homogeneous entity and no one can promise anything in the name of all of the EU.
“Getting past No”
Alternatively, by saying NO to either the Proposal or the Protocol, the Macedonian government could remind Europe why they say no, why all of the MSs (except a few) just a few short weeks ago continued to state that unreasonable bilateral demands have no place in EU negotiations and that the demands are against European values; and that it is unjust for a country to be blackmailed and bullied into violating/abandoning the principles of self-identification and self-determination; and instead of bending over yet again and opening up the door for even more dangerous precedents that we can't even begin to predict, the sober Macedonian voice can say "this shall not pass" and we are defending Europe from its own illiberal doppelganger and principled slothfulness.
Negotiations will not stop if they say no. The Balkans will still be unresolved and an annoying priority. So, is it really a generational choice whether to say yes to this hastily crafted deal? Or are the dangerous pathways this deal opens (for Europe as well) enough to say - let's not rush and let’s analyze this more - if the French have enough political capital to be spending so much time bullying Macedonian politicians to swallow this deal (as well as bullying the other MSs), they have enough capital to keep it on the table for another month or two.
Macedonia should not have to suffer shallow French diplomatic tactics and Europe deserves a much more systematic and serious approach to something so important. The focus should have been on educating the region on how to deal with its past, and how to reconcile wneighboursbors, rather than supporting Bulgaria to dictate how Macedonia should teach history in their own schools. Most importantly, the focus, energy and finances should have been provided for preventing escalation by setting a genuine structure for an expert-driven process where the dialogue would be facilitated but also guided by the EU acquis, UN, OSCE and CoE commitments and documents.
If the Macedonian side is pushed into signing this malignant agreement, what does it gain? They will not really be starting negotiations; the changes in the Constitution can take a long time if ever; all the BG politicians have clearly declared that they will use this deal to finally get what they have waited for centuries by maintaining their EU-approved stranglehold on Macedonia; the precedent of including illiberal bilateral disputes inside EU decision-making will have been established; there is no clear indication that the extremist nationalist rhetoric from Sofia will lessen since it is mostly used for internal political purposes anyway; and no certainty what kind of government will Bulgaria have in place to implement the deal (very unlikely it will have any good faith considering current political forces in play).
Reconciliation will be very difficult if one side feels very offended and injured, which we can now confirm given how many people joined the protests.
Macedonian political dialogue should produce a list of guarantees and demands from the EU
This will take time and that means this issue moves to the Czech Presidency. The French were very late, but the EU might take some lessons learnt from this failure and understand that six months are not enough to produce an acceptable document and to get all MSs on board. Centuries-long grievances can and should be addressed in a structured process, but setting it takes time, finding finances, expertise and agreeing on negotiable vs. non-negotiable.
That is why dialogue-facilitation or mediation is a process with phases and its own features. It is a process that when handling complex issues might take much longer than one Presidency, therefore they have to work in its Troika format – previous, current and future. Additionally, they must develop better consultative mechanisms, so that the MSs are better informed and part of the process much earlier, in order to avoid the my-way-or-the-highway approach, a tactic incompatible with the cooperative nature of the Union.
The French Proposal undermines the existing mechanisms of monitoring and assessment
Creating a new monitoring mechanism in which only EU MSs (i.e., political actors, therefore primarily the Bulgarian government) will have a say on the progress means sidelining a whole international system of values. Why ignore all we have been creating for almost a century? To prevent escalation, the EU and its MSs can hear the screams for help and roll up their sleeves to improve or update the proposal and/or the protocol, make sure it is according to international standards and its interpretation and implementation are monitored by independent international experts that would not be under the direct influence of Bulgaria or its illiberal allies like Hungary.
Call things as they are – the protocol is part of the French package and should not be hidden or considered to be off-limits to international evaluation. If the protocol is a condition of the acceptance of the package deal and Art 12 and “good neighbourly” is intertwined throughout the package deal, then just admit that clearly and deal with the protocol as well. Asking for an objective evaluation based on international and European standards of the new EU Presidency would provide that moment of sanity that would counter the harsh propaganda from both sides, but especially this false "do or die attitude" that this is our last chance (which has never been true though it keeps on being repeated).
It would also throw the ball back to the EU for them to define what the EU stands for and under what conditions they expect enlargement to continue - whether the principles they espoused a month ago or the bullied response of now. All of these are good enough reasons to put a pause on the whole issue.
So why the pressure, why the rush? If it’s because some lazy Western politicians who do not know much and care even less, want to tick a box with short fixes and be done with these Balkan annoyances, maybe we should put this on hold. If it is because Macron wants an easy win, we should put this on hold. If it is because people bought into “it is now or never” we should definitely put this on hold. It is neither now nor never nor has the train left the station.
Furthermore, the violence on the streets showed the necessity of a pause needed for deeper evaluation and confidence building inside the society. The Macedonian government has to tell the EU, the French and other “emergency visitors” that their country is a democracy, and they need a solution that will be cohesive, as the internal disintegration leads to instability and inability to implement the French proposal.
This will be a dignified approach, the one all Macedonians expect after being humiliated by Prespa and again by the French proposal. What needs to happen now is defending the EU’s soul from the lazy diplomats who want to circumvent the purpose of the Union and who lacked creativity, vision, long-term thinking, and problem-solving skills.
At “historical moments” like this, the leaders of EU MSs and Macedonian politicians need to jointly stand up and defend the values of the European Union from external and internal threats that will corrode its foundations and make it even more vulnerable than it is already today.