WASHINGTON – With a longstanding feud over the formal name of Macedonia apparently settled, the small Balkan nation is now looking down the barrel of a long-sought opportunity – to join the European Union and the NATO alliance.
But experts warn that the bureaucratic steps in front of Macedonia mean there is a way to go before it can join those two organizing bodies.
Greece has held up Macedonia’s requests to join NATO and the EU for decades, as part of a demand that its northern neighbor change or modify its name to avoid any claim to the territory and ancient heritage of the region in northern Greece named Macedonia — birthplace of ancient warrior king Alexander the Great.
But under a new agreement reached this week, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev said the former Yugoslav republic’s new name for both domestic and international purposes would be Republic of North Macedonia. Macedonia will also amend its constitution to reflect the change as part of the deal.
Zaev said the deal would be signed this weekend, and a voter referendum would be held in the fall to ratify the change. Should that pass, Tsipras has said his country will support the newly-renamed Macedonia joining the large European bodies.
Greece was one of two nations to join NATO in 1952, the first wave of enlargement for the alliance after its founding. In contrast, Macedonia would become the 30th member of NATO, following the 2017 ascension of Montenegro.
The Trump administration would welcome Macedonia’s ascension to NATO, said Richard Hooker, special assistant to the president and senior director for Europe and Russia with the National Security Council. But he warned not to expect that to happen quickly, given procedural hurdles left to climb.
“It’s not the sort of thing that can be implemented over night,” Hooked said June 13 at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in partnership with Defense News, noting the number of internal votes and agreements in both countries still needed before NATO allies could bring it up for a vote.
Still, “if it becomes apparent that both countries are sincerely in agreement on this and have agreed to a consensus, then I think NATO and certainly the United States would be supportive,” Hooker said.
There is little reason to expect any of the other allied nation to raise objections. Appearing at the same panel as Hooker, Jonatan Vseviov, the permanent secretary with the Ministry of Defense of Estonia, said his nation would “absolutely” back Macedonia joining the alliance.
Magnus Nordenman, director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, told Defense News after the event that “me and plenty of others in the broader NATO community are hoping and praying that this [agreement] holds.” But like Hooker, he notes a long path still remains.
“It’s not only about checking the box for the military requirements and the political requirements and so forth,” he said. “It will not happen overnight. But I think the path is clear and now it’s time to actually get to work on fulfilling those requirements and having those discussions inside the lines.”
Asked if he could see Macedonia joining the alliance at the 2020 biannual NATO Summit, Nordeman sounded skeptical.
“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible but that sounds like an awfully quick march,” he said.
Facing even steeper odds for joining NATO are Georgia and Ukraine, two nations that have both expressed a desire to team up with the alliance following the seizure of territory by Russia in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, America’s ambassador to NATO, indicated to Defense News that she was open to the two nations joining if they can figure out the details, saying “I think, by and large, every one of us [allies] wants to have more members that are in our sphere because we don’t want them to go into the Russian sphere and cause more problems and more disruptions.”
However, the presence of military conflict within those two nations means they are currently ineligible to join the alliance. And while there has been some discussion about changing that rule in order to facilitate their entrance into NATO, nothing appears likely in the future.
“It’s difficult to see fast movement on Ukraine and in Georgian NATO membership,” Nordenman said. “But again, I think it is incredibly important both for NATO as an alliance and also for the U.S. to clearly signal that the door is not closed.”
Content from the Associated Press’s Elena Becatoros and Jasmina Mironski was used in this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.