In the early 2000s, when the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) became the first Balkan country to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SSA), obtaining the candidate country status by the European Council in 2005, everyone seemed hopeful of a swift, positive output of the process. Speaking from Thessaloniki in 2003, the then President of the European Commission (EC) Romano Prodi was clear: Balkan integration was a central part of the EU’s agenda. The Social-democratic Union for Macedonia (SDSM) party as well, in government at the time, created the pro-integration motto “the Sun, too, is a star”, with a view to completing the process in the near future.

Looking more closely at the political context preceding the 2024 elections, from the outside, an inexperienced observer could notice no major difference. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 pushed the EC (as stated in an October 2022 Communication) to adapt its foreign policy and its current strongest geopolitical tool: enlargement (European Parliament Recommendation of 23 November 2022). In July, the first intergovernmental conferences on accession negotiation were opened, and the screening process started. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute showed that nearly 80% of Northern Macedonians said they were in favor of EU integration and the majority SDSM government was ready to do whatever it could to boost the process.

But why is integration taking so long, and why the were the recent 2024 elections were considered by international media as a steady stop in that path? This article will try to do is to shed some light on the overall process of EU accession by focusing on the political, cultural and ethnic “adjustment” it is required to North Macedonia by its neighbor countries and how latent frustration is underpinning the election results.

Balancing neighbor’s requests, self-identity, and a place in Brussels

If the integration process just depended on the good intentions of both parties described above, EU transnational institutions (such as the EP and the EC) and North Macedonia political élites – even of the VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary organization) Party – we would not be in the stalemate of today.

On a substantial level of negotiations with the EU, the European Commission (2023 Report on North Macedonia) highlighted some deficiencies registered by the recent screening process, suggesting that the major flaws the country needs to face in order to continue its integration journey concerned the first cluster “Fundamentals” and are public administration reform, accountability and trust of the judicial system and prevention and fight against corruption.

As a matter of fact, these shortcomings have only recently emerged due to the possibility of reaching such a stage in integration talks. That’s because, over the past twenty years, different vetoes from neighboring countries blocked the path at the European Council level. It was at the end of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union, in June 2022, that a compromise was forced on North Macedonia and Bulgaria: despite political turmoil and protests in both countries, the agreement was ratified in both national parliaments. After the 2024 elections, the veto-menacing phase is back: not only Bulgaria but also Greece oppose North Macedonia's EU access.

To move deeper into the integration process at this stage means ignoring a primary matter normally scrutinized by the EU. Indeed, for North Macedonia, obtaining a place in Brussels would entail re-constructing its political, cultural, and even ethnic identity – something that stands at the roots of the Bulgarian and Greek vetoes. Moreover, it is paramount to clarify how EU institutions can address their own members’ stances and how their requests may transform integration into a coercive, more than a converging, process.

Trading EU membership for the implementation of an identitarian geopolitical imaginary: assessing the Greek and Bulgarian case

Shortly after obtaining independence with the collapse of Yugoslavia, the former Macedonia faced an uphill road to get international recognition by some countries. As the pre-Maastricht European Community[1] had to take a stance, it was clear that a pro-Greek position was emerging, deriving from the veto power Member States could exercise in the Council related to “national interests” affairs.

Greece, strongly opposing the use of “Macedonia” in the country’s name, forced these recognitions to depend not only on the protection of ethnic minorities' human rights and the absence of territorial claims toward European Community neighboring countries (like for other Balkan countries) but also on “the use of a name which implied territorial claims” (Danforth, 1993).

An agreement between the two countries was reached when just-Macedonia was accepted by the Security Council of the United Nations as FYROM, but Greece refused to let the country’s flag fly because, by displaying the “Vergina sun”, it was argued to be appropriating an ancient-Macedonian-therefore-Greek symbol. Again, through UN-led negotiations, in 1996, the country changed the Constitution in order to adopt a new flag: internationally used and strongly contested at home, the two flags were displayed in front of public institutions, with VMRO officials supporting the idea of exposing only the previous one. Still sought by Greece, the removal of the old flag was part of the 2018 Prespa Agreement.

Both images were taken by the author. On top: a “Vergina sun” flag displayed by a window in the Karpoš district of Skopje during election day. Down: people waving a “Vergina sun” flag in the central Macedonia square of Skopje minutes after the announced VMRO victory.

Prior to this agreement, Greece vetoed accession talks within the bodies of the Union, refusing to accept the country by the name “Republic of Macedonia”. By converging on the compromise of the “Republic of North Macedonia”, then Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev managed to solve the name dispute despite not gaining full support from their respective home opposition parties (Graan, 2021). VMRO contested the agreement from a minority position without triggering any concrete effect, but after the 2024 winner of the presidential election, Siljanovska-Davkova, was sworn in, calling the country just “Macedonia”, widespread criticism was raised all along the Greek political spectrum, reviving the veto menace.

Such a divide between the two major parties can also be observed in the late VMRO’s Gruevski Skopje 2014 project: as Greece criticized the appropriation of ancient-Macedonian-therefore-Greek creation of Hellenic buildings, like the Archaeological Museum, or statues (like those of Alexander the Great or Filip of Macedon), in 2018 SDSM’s Zaev, in line with the diplomatic exercise of the Prespa agreement, renamed them to become a symbol of friendship between North Macedonia and Greece. 

Both images were taken by the author. Two major landmarks of the Skopje 2014 project: the Alexander the Great statue and the Archaeological museum.

Instead, friction between Bulgaria and North Macedonia concerns disputes concerning ethnic and linguistic matters. As Bulgaria historically denied the independence of a Macedonian ethnicity, the country has usually justified its veto in EU Councils to North Macedonia suggesting the presence of rampant “anti-Bulgarian ideology”, like in the 2020 refusal to approve a negotiation framework.

If we look closely at North Macedonian political élites, something can be added to the story. For example, former Prime Minister and founder of the VMRO party, Liubčo Georgievski, now holds Bulgarian citizenship, while nearly 100.000 North Macedonians, with a population of nearly 1.8 million, possess a Bulgarian passport. Without delving into the complex ethnic (or non-ethnic) questions concerning these issues, it is evident that, by implementing such an “expansion” policy, Bulgaria stresses bilateral relations between the countries (Neofotistos, 2009). It expands the basis of the Bulgarian requests that are part of the French proposal – recognition of a shared history and inclusion of Bulgarians as a recognized minority in the Constitution – further bending North Macedonia's cultural identity to attain a place in Brussels.

In order to gain the EU, North Macedonia is going in the opposite direction: when SDSM came back to power it was clear that building back relations with Bulgaria was the only way. We can read the 2017 Friendship Treaty in this sense: a bilateral commission was established in order to soften historical controversies. The project barely managed to do anything and, after nearly one year, ended all his activities.

Over the subsequent years, SDSM leading figures continued an appeasing policy towards Bulgaria, highlighting cultural and historical remarks of friendship between the two countries and, at the same time, exacerbating the nationalist narrative VMRO was cultivating at the opposition. The political atmosphere was definitely heated when the North Macedonia parliament approved the French proposal for EU accession in July 2022, triggering the biggest mobilization since 2015 Gruevski’s scandals.

Both images taken by the author. By looking closely at North Macedonia Parliament’s facade, the signs of the 2022 protests, like those of rock-throwing, are still visible.

The politics of EU integration, the landscape and the results of the 2024 elections

On May 8, 2024, the VMRO party won a landslide victory in the general political elections, getting 59 out of the 120 total seats in the unicameral parliament. Their presidential candidate, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, won nearly 70% of the votes in the presidential elections, beating incumbent SDSM candidate Stevo Pendaroski. What does that mean for the country and the future of EU accession?

Certainly, the vote finds its roots in the general dissatisfaction with the political class, after nearly 8 years of SDSM government on the one hand and a renovated VMRO, with its leader Mickoski, overcoming the previous Grueski’s legacy, on the other.

It is true that the SDSM's appeasing and pragmatic approach to bilateral relations with Greece and Bulgaria, despite leading to the successful Prespa agreement and convincing Sofia to let the screening process begin (with a “not-so-little” French help), made the general country upset. It is also true that current VMRO stances on aggressively responding to Bulgarian historical and linguistic revisionism requests and refusing to stand behind the commitments of the Prespa Agreement will likely and abruptly halt the progress that has been made.

However, simply facing the question of what the North Macedonian political class must do to gain EU access does not fully render justice to the overall process. Again, rather than integration, the country is being imposed by external neighbors some forms of coercion in exchange for lifting their veto in EU institutions.

Eventually, a different question should be posed. Acknowledging the multi-level system by which the EU works, one that makes single members (such as Greece or Bulgaria) capable of blocking nearly every foreign affairs/enlargement policy decision, what can be done to avoid such blackmailing in the future? Without a system reform, the veto power remains, and the ability to find solutions and compromises also lies in national leaders' hands, as in the case of the French proposal.

Finding a solution is needed, not only because the EU access promise was made over 20 years ago and its deadlock is causing rage and frustration, but mostly because for the general population integration is the only solution to the economic and civil decline of the country. Finding a spot in Brussels for many, as the 2023 IRI poll suggested, is not anymore about “benefits”, it is rather a question of survival.

Such urgency can be detected, for example, in a statement of former North Macedonia Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani, who, in a November 2023 interview, declared: “The only narrative that has subordinated these [ethnic] conflicting narratives and has become a glue is the European Union. (…) If we fail, because of [the] EU not being assertive enough, I think it will be the beginning of a domino effect throughout the region, [...] and the message [will be] that in the Balkans, multi-ethnic democracies cannot work.”


[1] The European Union is based on the rule of law, and its constitution is represented by Treaties approved by EU member states over the years. From the Treaty establishing the "European Coal and Steel Community" in 1951, the EU constitutional basis has been amended several times, the most important being the Merger Treaty - Brussels (entered into force in 1967), the Single European Act (1988), Treaty on European Union - Maastricht Treaty (1993), Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), Treaty of Nice (2003), Treaty of Lisbon (2009). Maastricht Treaty was pivotal in European integration because it introduced the single currency, sanctioned the name of "European Union" and established important changes within the structure and powers of the EU, based on the then "three pillars system", now abolished (and further integrated): European Communities, Justice and Home Affairs, the Common Foreign and Security Policy. [Editor's note]