Europe

Balkan rumblings: Setbacks on enlargement and new Prespes violations

Against the backdrop of another EU presidency (Portugal) failing to move ahead this month on the Enlargement issue as well as a generally slow rollout of the Covid vaccination programs across much of the region, Southeastern Europe appears to be exposed to a summer of problems which could potentially ignite other long-simmering tensions. 

No deal on Enlargement

In Brussels, the EU’s General Affairs Council on June 22 failed to reach an agreement that would enable the launch of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.  Although the aspirant countries had pretty much reconciled themselves to the prospect that no progress would emerge during the Portuguese presidency and that Slovenia’s upcoming takeover of the rotating presidency in July offered more hope, the usual last-minute efforts/visits by some EU member state officials and Commission personalities made the latest cycle’s distinct lack of progress all the more disappointing.

Bulgaria’s continuing veto of any EU decision on a start date for accession talks, using the vehicle of a so-called “intergovernmental conference,” as the mechanism, was not unexpected.  The country has new elections in July, and only a few publicity-seeking officials dared to suggest in May and June that progress might be possible through quiet bilateral negotiations between Sofia and Skopje before that date, with EU officials playing supporting roles.    

Minor North Macedonian violations of the Prespes Agreement provoke Greece 

Already upset by the latest bad news from Brussels, governing officials in Skopje cannot be too pleased with the latest unfortunate turn of events in relations with Athens.  Largely as a result of a June 21 tweet by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev about a football game played by the North Macedonian national team in Amsterdam, events entered a downward spiral.  In the tweet, Zaev described the team he was applauding the “Macedonian national team,” failing to indicate his country was now called North Macedonia.

Understandably, Greece reacted the next day.  Government spokesperson Aristotelia Peloni said, “We demand the full implementation of the Prespes agreement and its spirit and we call on Zaev to refrain from the divisive rhetoric, especially in such a sensitive issue as football.”  

Some Greek media sources indicate that Athens is deferring the planned parliamentary ratification set for July of three bilateral memoranda of cooperation until next fall.  Reacting quickly, Zaev reportedly issued a statement indicating that the football team will now be referred to as the North Macedonian national team and that the country’s football federations need to use the country’s constitutional name in all cases.

It is interesting that the US Ambassador to Greece held an urgent meeting with the Greek foreign minister one day after Peloni’s statement, and the foreign ministry indicated the situation in the Western Balkans was among the issues discussed. 

Earlier in the week, the US State Department announced that Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Reeker will be making a visit to Albania and North Macedonia at the end of June and early July, peeling off from the entourage of Secretary of State Antony Blinken who is visiting key European allies again this week.  Reeker will also be participating in a conference event in Ohrid celebrating the 2018 Prespes Agreement which his office at the State Department strongly supported and helped engineer. Reeker had previously served as US Ambassador in Skopje, and after close to four years in his current post during the Trump administration, is expected to be rotating soon.  

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