Last week's parliamentary elections in Macedonia saw the incumbent EU-skeptic government securing four more years of power. While this will certainly not be treated as a big surprise by the Balkan watchers in Brussels, the re-election of this government and its political platform might soon pose a number of challenging choices for EU policy makers. They have the luxury of avoiding the entire set now but such a choice would turn extremely costly for both geostrategic matters and the EU integration process in the Western Balkans later.
EU accession talks started in 2005 have been derailed by the 2008 decision by Greece to block Macedonia's path to NATO membership and the Macedonian government has since proven to be uninterested in pursuing the Euro-Atlantic route. Instead the authorities embarked on a nation building project based on obscure antics of Alexander the Great, including the construction of a 36-meter statue of the man himself in Skopje's central square.
The two previous administrations of Nikola Gruevski, the prime minister of Macedonia, have irked US and EU officials alike by their tough and unproductive stance on the ongoing name dispute with Greece. They have also registered lackluster performance in fulfilling the requirements of the Accession Partnership of the European Commission’s so-called pre-accession strategy. It is no wonder that the EU is now contemplating revoking Macedonia's candidate status and putting it next to Albania as basket cases of European integration.
Solving the name dispute with Greece deserves another attempt. Dropping Macedonia would be a tactical mistake for at least three reasons. First, Gruevski will remain the most powerful figure in Macedonia for the foreseeable future. He is also the only politician with a popular mandate to solve the name dispute with Greece and help mitigate the public outcry through the media it controls.
Second, his dream of economic growth still relies on foreign investment that would most certainly arrive from the EU member states. Gruevski knows he needs money and international recognition to run the state in the way he does it now. An IMF loan was handy but will not last for long. Issuing state bonds comes at an even higher price so the Macedonian government would need to find a more sustainable model if it is to remain in power and keep the population at check in the next four years.
Third, all ethnic Albanian parties and the social democratic opposition support Euro-Atlantic integration and will not oppose solution of the name dispute and normalization of the EU accession process. If pressed, Gruevski cannot continue neglecting this issue now. Neither could he call for snap elections as he did after the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 and solidify its power banking on anti Euro-Atlantic sentiment.
Leaving the domestic context aside, the EU would be well-advised to show a new level of engagement before the summer holidays. The upcoming progress report by the European Commission and rumors of accession talks being revoked both seem like good reasons to revive the Macedonia issue right now, which may also lead to Greece becoming open to joining the conversation and move on from the name dispute.
Solving the Greece-Macedonia conundrum would represent a bold step forward for the EU. More importantly, it will pave the way for EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule to resume the accession process and add Macedonia to the duo of Montenegro and Serbia that will get a start date for accession talks towards the end of this year.
The window of opportunity for action is very short—before the release of the progress report in October and perhaps an unpredictable turn of events that worsens the Greek financial crisis. Commission officials, especially those in the European External Action Service should use the packed fall calendar to press the newly composed government. It would be a small investment in time and energy that is worth trying since it could bring long-term dividends to all sides. For the EU scoring new points in Balkans would be a way not only to restore its credibility in Macedonia and the region but also give positive signs to those in the European neighborhood and the Middle East.