Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, returned last week from a trip to Skopje; the first visit by a Greek head of state to North Macedonia since the resolution of the two countries’ dispute over the name “Macedonia.” This followed a previous visit on 17 June 2018 – the day the Prespes
Agreement was signed, at a lakeside restaurant north of the two countries’ border.
The state visit, which included 10 Greek cabinet ministers, and more than two dozen Greek business leaders, marks a drastic improvement in the once icy relationship between the two neighbours, and heralds their closer bilateral ties. Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, discussed areas of cooperation in the economy, defense, infrastructure, and transport.
Last summer, Greece and North Macedonia signed the Prespes Agreement, which ended their 27-year stalemate over the latter’s name. Greece – which objected to the use of the name “Macedonia”, because of the northern Greek region of the same name – agreed to drop its veto of Macedonia’s NATO and EU membership applications, in return for the country adding “North” to its official name.
In 2017, Greece surpassed the UK to become the second largest investor in the Macedonian economy, behind only Germany. Now that the name issue is resolved, North Macedonia’s continued integration into European institutions is expected to further bolster economic ties between the two countries. While Greek companies have invested a total of 1.5 billion euros in North Macedonia, since 1991, Prime Minister Zaev predicted 500 million euros of new Greek investment – equivalent to 5% of North Macedonia’s GDP – as a result of the deal.
During their meeting, Tsipras and Zaev signed an agreement, to open two new border crossings, and a memorandum of understanding about new road and rail links between the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, and the Macedonian cities, Skopje and Tabanovce. The two established an intergovernmental cooperation council that will meet annually. DESFA, the Greek natural gas transmission system operator, plans to build an “energy bridge” across the Greek-Macedonian border, to connect the liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal at Revithoussa, to the European gas pipeline network. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is also expected to increase its investment in the two countries, particularly in cross-border energy and transport projects.
Tsipras and Zaev also pledged to deepen their cooperation in defense, as North Macedonia moves toward NATO membership. For instance, Greece will now begin monitoring Macedonian airspace. Greece’s objection to the country’s name was the only obstacle to North Macedonia receiving an invitation into the alliance in 2008. It signed an accession protocol with the alliance in February. Membership must still be ratified by all NATO members, but the process is expected to go smoothly, and within a year the country is likely to become NATO’s 30th member state.
North Macedonia was granted EU candidature status in 2005, but Greek opposition prevented talks from starting. Integration with the EU will be a more complicated process than the NATO accession, as France and the Netherlands have expressed scepticism over any enlargement of the bloc until internal weaknesses are addressed, but membership talks are scheduled to begin in June.
While the agreement presents clear benefits for the two countries, and the region as a whole, it has inflamed nationalist opposition on both sides. Many Macedonians see the geographical qualifier “North”, as an embarrassing concession, although opposition is tempered by the geopolitical and economic benefits of integration with the West. In Greece, opposition is starker: October polls indicate that a majority of the population opposes the agreement, particularly in the northern Greek region of Macedonia. The deal will face electoral tests in both countries this year; Macedonia is slated to have national elections on April 21, while Greeks are set to head to the ballot boxes by October.
The Greek conservative leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has come out against the deal, saying that Greece now has the right to slow down North Macedonia’s EU accession. The text of the Prespes Agreement, however, would prevent a future Greek prime minister from reneging on the deal, and vetoing North Macedonia’s EU or NATO accession outright. The left-wing Tsipras remains committed to deepening ties.
While the leaders who struck the deal may pay a political cost, the resulting economic and security ties will benefit both countries. European Council President, Donald Tusk, congratulated the two Prime Ministers, “They had imagination, they took the risk, they were ready to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good. Zoran, Alexis – well done! Mission impossible accomplished.”