Despite recent problems, Macedonia's record is still "best in class" and its Euro-Atlantic integration should continue posthaste.
In a region still haunted by nationalism, ethnic strife and economic dislocation, Macedonia stands out.
Having gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia joined the UN in 1993 under the temporary name of the FYROM. Since then, the country has survived threats by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, the in-flux of 300.000 refugees from Kosovo, ethnic violence between its Albanian and Macedonian communities, and the tragic death of its President in 2004 on the very day the country's application to join the EU was being presented in Dublin.
In addition, Macedonia has had to labour under the decades-long pall of Greek opposition to its name (Greece objects to Macedonia's use of the name 'Republic of Macedonia' because it is shared by a northern Greek province).
In spite of these set-backs, the Skopje government turned in its application for EU membership in 2004 and was accepted as a candidate in 2005. That year, the European Commission praised Macedonia's progress. Its defence reforms - and its contributions to NATO operations - have also been lauded. ESI has called the management of Macedonia's post-Yugoslav trajectory as "the biggest foreign policy successes of the European Union."
In 2007, however, tensions flared up after the general elections and old wounds between the two communities - ethnic Macedonians and Albanians - were re-opened. In the words of the EU's envoy, the events were "a palpable reminder that a sustained effort was required to ensure continued inter-ethnic cooperation, intra-ethnic stability and a relationship of trust between all the political parties."
The events were followed by boycotts of parliament by the opposition party Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which represents ethnic Albanians, in protest against the ruling centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party. Passions were further inflamed when the constitutional court banned the display of the Albanian flag on buildings and places of national significance, limiting the use of the flag at the municipal level.
In response, the EU called on the government to take the lead in promoting what it calls "inter-ethnic consensus". The European Commission report on Macedonia's reforms noted the lack of progress in issues contained in the so-called "May Agreement," which was struck between VMRO-DPMNE and the DUI. With fears that Kosovo's independence may boost Albanian separatism in Macedonia, EU seems keen to address the "national question" and undercut any irredentist moves.
But, at the same time, further decentralisation to accommodate the Albanian minority is beginning to rankle among ethnic Macedonians. Concerns have also arisen that the country is becoming ungovernable under the weight of its increasingly complex constitutional arrangements.
Finally, with France weary of further enlargement - having threatened to veto Macedonia's candidate status in 2005 - and Greece still wedded to its hard-line stance on the name dispute, some analysts worry that the EU is stringing Macedonia along. ECFR's Jose Ignacio Torreblanca identifies an additional stumbling bloc: "The theoretically enlargement-proof institutions of the Treaty of Lisbon cannot accommodate more members. The Commission will not be reformed until 2014 and the Nice Treaty voting weighs will be in place until 2014-2017." My other colleague, Ognyan Minchev, notes that many European countries will be reluctant to expedite Macedonia's accession before it is clear that the country can survive any shake-ups following Kosovo's independence - which might take a year or two to show.
But despite these obstacles, it is in Europe's interest to push ahead with enlargement. The reasons are simple even if they need to be re-stated. First, the foundation of the EU's "soft power", the reason why more than any other international arrangement it has changed the countries on its borders, has been the prospect of membership. Second, enlargement works helps Europe's economy. Each new member provides Europe with new jobs, new markets and new investment opportunities. Since 2004, 12 new member states have joined the EU, expanding the single market by over 100 million consumers. Third, enlargement is the lithium carbonate of conflict prevention - a drug that when used can normalize moods, particularly by dampening mood swings. No more is this durg as needed as in the ever-volatile Balkans.
Therefore, as Slovenia begins its first-ever presidency of the EU, an opportunity exists to rejuvenate the prospects of the Balkans' Euro-Atlantic integration. A good start could come in the form of an invitation to Macedonia to join NATO at the Bucharest summit in April 2008. If, by the end of 2008, EU membership talks have been begun with Skopje, both Slovenia's and France's EU presidencies can be deemed successful and a sign that the EU is turning outwards and away from the inter-institutional wrangling that have occupied European leaders in recent years.
But this will require courage in Brussels, Skopje, Paris and Athens. Macedonia's problems are not negligible. Inter-ethnic and intra-party animosity will need to be overcome, as Macedonians and Albanians find a way to share their polity. Corruption will need to be combated. But compared to neighbouring Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and even Albania the country's problems are minor. Compared to Serbia - which some EU countries wanted to "reward" with an expedited accession process in exchange for accepting Kosovo's independence - Macedonia's claim is more just. Perhaps most importantly, a clear EU and NATO commitment to the country's Euro-Atlantic integration may help solve many of its internal disputes and encourage other Balkan countries to emulate their southern neighbour.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
Read more on: Wider Europe