Young people feel European Union affiliation will fast-track their dreams of access to a better life and more employment opportunities, besides helping the country progress.
As a student of medicine at St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, Vesa Sherifi is keen to serve the people of her country. But opportunities are limited in North Macedonia and her hope lies in seeking greener pastures abroad.
It is precisely, for this reason, she was hoping that the long-pending decision on North Macedonia’s entry into the European Union would come through when the elected leaders of Balkan nations met representatives of the 27-member bloc in Brussels on June 23.
But the country’s 18-year-long wait—since it applied for EU membership in 2004—just got longer as the EU failed to arrive at a consensus once again. Since it formally applied for EU membership, North Macedonia first faced objections from Greece and then from Bulgaria.
“Personally, I would love to pursue my career in my country, but this is a growing challenge due to lack of opportunities,” Sherifi tells TRT World. “It is time for Europe to act on the hopes of the people of my country. I believe that both North Macedonia and Albania are fully deserving of being part of EU.”
A day after the Brussels talks ended, Bulgaria’s parliament approved lifting the country’s veto on opening EU accession talks with North Macedonia. But it is not known when the bloc members will meet again to discuss the membership applications. Besides North Macedonia, six other countries are currently official candidates for EU membership: Türkiye, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Moldova and Ukraine. The last two nations’ candidatures were approved at the Brussels summit.
For young North Macedonians like Sherifi, the elusive EU membership could open avenues for employment and business, improve communication within the bloc and help the country prosper in the long run.
They were promised
Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia’s bid since 2020, insisting that the Balkan country formally recognise that its language has Bulgarian roots, mention a Bulgarian minority in its constitution and stamp out allegedly anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. North Macedonia has repeatedly rejected the demands, saying that its identity and language are not open for discussion.
For people of North Macedonia, Bulgaria’s objections came as a double whammy just when they thought that the path had been cleared after resolving a dispute with Greece. Athens had protested North Macedonia’s membership over the country’s earlier name, Macedonia, claiming Greece had a province of the same name where its second-largest city, Thessaloniki, is located.
In 2018, the two countries signed the Prespa Agreement under which the country was renamed as ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ and Greece formally withdrew its opposition. The name change had helped the country gain NATO membership.
“With the change of our country’s name, the people believed (and they were promised) that it’s the last painful change that we need to make in order to start the EU accession. In reality, the situation, unfortunately, is different,” says Vladimir Gjorgjevski, head of the country branch of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), an organisation launched by the EU to enhance cooperation among the youth of Western Balkans.
“Especially for the young people, it is not acceptable and even not understandable that only one member of the EU can block the whole accession process of not just its neighbour, but also Albania over an identity dispute which normally in the 21st century shouldn’t be even seen as a problem,” Gjorgjevski adds.
“The general conclusion among the people about the recent summit is that it’s only a photo parade where we are listening to the same old promises without having any concrete result.”
The Bulgarian blockade on North Macedonia has left Albania’s EU membership process in limbo as well, as the EU linked the membership of both countries. Croatia was the last country to join the EU way back in 2013.
Metodija Stojceski, President and Executive Director of the non-profit Youth Alliance–Krusevo, is another disappointed man. “Our expectations as a civil society from the Brussels summit are not positive. I think that we as a society did our homework and now everything is in the hands of the EU politicians.”
A pragmatic man, he also saw another potential solution to the impasse. “I think, now the only chance for the youth is to hope that the European Union will be reformed and will offer to the Western Balkans wide political and economic union without full membership…a special package of sorts,” Stojceski tells TRT World.
He emphasised that involving bilateral disputes in the framework of negotiation and connecting history with the future of the country is disappointing for young people.
“The Bulgarian veto is affecting the youth’s perception of the EU, especially on the trust in the EU institutions and EU politicians. For the first time after the start of the accession process, the support for EU integration of the country among the young people is less than 60 percent which was not the case in the past. In 2018, this support was more than 80 percent,” he adds.
Besides ethnic Macedonians, citizens with Albanian and Turkish roots have also been pained by the EU’s delay, which many feel is the reason for the brain drain from North Macedonia.
“The prolongation of the EU membership process of North Macedonia is especially forcing the young population to migrate. Actually, the EU integration process is delayed unnecessarily,” says Sevba Abdula, the head of the Fettah Efendi Association, a youth organisation working in the fields of education, knowledge and research ideas to inspire mostly the Albanian and Turkish communities in Skopje.
“It is in the interests of Balkan societies, especially the youth, to embrace the EU perspective. Since democratisation, good governance, rule of law, multiculturalism, equality etc., are only possible with the EU, that’s why most young people are trying to keep their hopes up,” Abdula tells TRT World.
Over the years, many young people have migrated to European countries in search of a better life and a better future that the EU had promised to bring to North Macedonia 18 years ago.
Those who decided to stay back now wait, and hope.