With a turnout of less than 40 per cent, the result of the referendum on whether to approve a change of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s (FYR Macedonia) official name to the Republic of North Macedonia is a setback for the country’s government. It had hoped to use approval of the change to normalize relations with Greece and clear a major obstacle to FYR Macedonia’s pursuit of EU and NATO membership.
But the referendum also highlights two enduring problems for the EU: its toxic relationship with electorates and the stalling of enlargement as its main policy towards the western Balkans.
In the run-up to the vote, many EU officials and European leaders, including the leaders of France and Germany and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, either visited Skopje or sent messages urging citizens of FYR Macedonia to support the agreement. The question on the ballot paper was formulated in a way that emphasized the prospects of NATO and EU accession in case of a Yes vote.
The promise of EU membership especially was supposed to energize the citizens of a country marred by political corruption, economic stagnation and high rates of emigration. Unlike referendums on European issues in other countries where the pro-EU side has stuck to technocratic messages, foreign leaders’ endorsements of the deal struck an emotional tone, inviting people to take part in the process of EU integration and European values.
The outcome has been underwhelming. Most observers agree that the referendum campaign was punctuated less by nationalist fervor and rabid partisanship (though these existed) than by a generalized sense of disillusionment with political elites and a distrust that the EU – after years of dealing with an economic crisis and political division itself – can really help their country.
While EU accession is still welcome by citizens of FYR Macedonia and other countries in the western Balkans, the association of the EU with corrupt local elites and the less than stellar economic performance of the EU’s Balkan members, Croatia and Slovenia, has tempered its attraction in the region.
Seen in a broader context, the referendum is one more link in a long chain of popular votes in recent years, from referendums in Greece, the UK and the Netherlands to elections in Hungary and Italy, where the EU has been resoundingly rejected.
Obviously not all these votes and countries are the same. Local political and economic context is always crucial for how the EU is perceived in European societies. But the overall trend is obvious: there is a deep rift between the EU and European voters, and referendum on FYR Macedonia’s name shows that this legitimacy gap extends beyond the borders of the EU as well.
This ties in with the second issue that the referendum highlights: the stalling of enlargement policy as the EU’s main tool for dealing with the Balkans. The EU foreign policy bureaucracy enthusiastically supported a resolution of the name issue because it saw it as a catalyst for reactivating the enlargement process in the region.
But local societies are growing increasingly tired with a prolonged technical process that seems to reward local political elites who manipulate it for their own ends more than ordinary citizens. While the nationalist politics around the name issue clearly was a driving force for the failure of the referendum, its outcome is in line with what opinion polling has found in FYR Macedonia and other countries in the region: EU membership does not fascinate citizens there anymore.
Thus, the outcome of the referendum is a failure also of a depoliticized and technocratic method of engaging with the Balkans in the framework of enlargement policy. Indeed, the EU’s entanglement in the referendum not only exposes the lack of political acumen of EU diplomacy, but also heightens doubts as to whether enlargement is an appropriate tool of external relations.
At a time of strong popular distrust towards elites in both the EU and the Balkans, a process like enlargement that is essentially elite-driven on both sides may no longer be a viable way to stabilize the Balkans and tie them to the EU.
The agreement between Greece and FYR Macedonia to change the name may still find its way towards ratification. But the referendum – alongside other recent initiative with questionable public support, such as the proposed Kosovo–Serbia land swap – calls into question the EU’s Balkan strategy, which has failed to deliver strategic benefits and may have even contributed to its ongoing legitimacy crisis. An overall rethink of EU policy towards the Balkans is a necessity.