North Macedonia, the EU, and NATO

March 15, 2019

North Macedonia’s diplomats are busy visiting European capitals to establish a process to allow North Macedonia rapid entry into the European Union (EU) and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Their potential membership in these organizations raises two questions: what is the purpose of these entities and what is Greece’s best response to North Macedonia’s initiatives?

NATO was formed to contain the expansion of Soviet power in Europe.  Its lynchpin was that if the USSR attacked any NATO nation, all would respond.  Another strategic plus was that the prospect of mutual assured destruction would avoid armed conflict.

In due course, economic and social pressures brought on the collapse of the USSR without military intervention by outside forces.

Following the collapse of the USSR, NATO admitted many former Soviet bloc nations into its ranks. This action in Europe became overreach when NATO sought to admit Ukraine and Georgia, which is the equivalent of Mexico and Canada allowing Russia to establish bases on their American borders.

NATO also became engaged in actions outside of Europe as far east as Afghanistan.

In this context, North Macedonia brings nothing to NATO.  Its armed forces are weak and if Russia ever attacks in Europe, it would not commence in the Balkans. North Macedonia’s economy is so frail that its military budget will end up being subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Given the region’s civil wars and its countries’ territorial claims on neighbors, introducing state-of-the-art weaponry seems reckless.

Regarding the name issue, however limited its clout in NATO and the EU, Greece can advocate holding off admission of North Macedonia until that nation demonstrates conclusively that it has ceased trying to usurp the legacy of Alexander the Great and has dropped all claims to Greek territory.

Whether the Prespes Agreement adequately addresses those matters is debatable; it must be seen whether what we have in writing actually occurs.

Greece could further suggest holding off any new members until NATO deals with the daily violations of Greek air space and coastal waters by Turkey, one of Greece’s NATO “partners”. Turkey also has threatened military action against companies of NATO nations drilling for oil in Cypriot waters. Dealing with such behavior would be a better use of NATO’s resources than introducing a new marginal player into its ranks.

The EU and its forerunners were conceived as socio-economic federations whose mission was to keep European powers from warring with one another. For over fifty years, it has succeeded in maintaining peace among member states by fostering economic cooperation, simplifying international regulations, and advancing political/cultural coordination.  One view of the EU was to keep it small but stable with less viable nations as associates, allow for time to work out the complex of problems required for a genuine federation of European states. This view has not prevailed.

What has prevailed is the EU admitting economic weaklings such as Greece and Montenegro. This has created tensions between have and have-not members. Immigration problems have been handled so poorly that they have generated a rise of parties urging their nation to leave the EU. Nor has the EU attempted to deal with the illegal Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, which is EU territory.

North Macedonia brings new problems to the EU. Given its weak economy, it would join the EU’s have nots. More ominous is North Macedonia’s 20-30% Albanian minority that desires equal language rights and separate schools. Some Albanian organizations even advocate separating from North Macedonia and joining Albania and Kosovo.  Now that Skopje’s relations with Greece are more settled, Albanian unrest is likely to revive, creating a potential problem similar to the struggles between Kosovo and Serbia.

Greece can reasonably argue that North Macedonian membership in the EU should be put on a 5-10 year hold. This would allow time for North Macedonia to establish it has truly abandoned claims on Greek territory and can resolve differences with its Albanian minority. Greece could show its good will by fostering commercial relationships with landlocked North Macedonia.  Vigorous trade going through Thessaloniki would benefit both economies.

Relations with what is now North Macedonia have been bungled by Greece for decades. Denials that there are Slavic speakers in Greek Macedonia were as absurd as denying there are Greek-speakers in Bulgaria and Serbia. Debates over whether the language spoken is a recent invention or just a Bulgarian dialect is largely irrelevant to basic Greek interests.

Greek political options are complicated by the priorities of American foreign policy. The “establishment” factions in the Democratic and Republican parties see NATO as more assertive and less defensive in nature than originally envisioned.  They also urge an expanding EU that would admit Turkey without insisting Turkey cease its unlawful acts against Greece and Cyprus.

Although the Greek Left traditionally has been wary of U.S. foreign policy in the region, SYRIZA has demonstrated it will take direction from the United States in these matters.

New Democracy has been more independent. It has voiced the possibility of blocking North Macedonian entry into the EU. Given that New Democracy usually is in accord with U.S. policy, the proposed no vote could be designed to be bargained away for increased American economic aid.

Greek America has a weak hand to play, but it can certainly lobby against American meddling in EU matters and the constant expansion of NATO.  Financial and political support for Greek parties could hinge on these parties abandoning heated rhetoric and formulating specific plans for dealing with North Macedonia in a manner that looks forward rather than backward.


A number of friends and colleagues who are intensely interested in Middle Eastern matters took issue with my National Herald article (‘Middle East History’, May 18, 2024), arguing that Israel is a colonial enterprise that has failed to integrate into the Middle East, like the Crusader states of yore.

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