North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was left grasping thin air as the prospect of EU accession talks was snatched away.
France’s Emmanuel Macron played the part of antagonist-in-chief.
Mr Macron said “Non” when all the other EU leaders were in favour of giving the formal go-ahead to membership negotiations with North Macedonia.
Neighbouring Albania was given the brush-off too.
The EU’s snub also sent a grim message across the Balkans – to would-be members Kosovo and Bosnia and even Serbia and Montenegro, which are both many years into membership negotiations.
‘Expectations were so high’
The French veto did not exactly leave North Macedonia’s leader lying on the ground in a crumpled heap, but it did make a mockery of his assertion that changing the country’s name would open the door to accession.
For 27 years, Greece had rejected the name Macedonia because of its region of the same name. The dispute came to an end only in January after a hard-won agreement and a series of difficult votes.
For young Macedonians especially the rejection comes as a blow, setting back the European aspirations of a new generation.
The government has already paid the price. It will not see out its full five-year term, but will head into early elections next April.
“No-one here believed we would become a member state tomorrow, but we were fully prepared for negotiations,” says Ivana Tufegdzik, an MP in the governing coalition.
“So many European prime ministers and presidents said that the [name-change] agreement, referendum and constitutional changes would open the door to the EU. Even President Macron said that in a video to the Macedonian people.”
“The expectations were so high. And suddenly there was the wrong message.”
Were alarm-bells ignored?
Mr Zaev bet all his political capital on the name change putting North Macedonia on the road to EU membership.
Now he faces a massive challenge, convincing voters that he is still the leader to drive the country forward. And the opposition are delighted to portray the situation as a failure for Mr Zaev and his Social Democrats.
“We said the government in Skopje was not doing enough to persuade the EU to open membership negotiations,” says Stefan Andonovski, a foreign policy adviser to the leadership of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.
“The government has not been listening to the alarms coming from the EU that we really have problems on the inside. The fight against corruption has been stagnant – we have had many scandals. The only reforms have been on the name issue; not much has been done in other areas.”
Some of these points are valid.
Anti-corruption efforts have been shaken by the arrest of the country’s leading special prosecutor. Katica Janeva is facing allegations of abuse of office and accepting bribes. And the EU’s commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, had warned that Skopje’s failure to reform the judiciary put EU membership talks at risk.
Yet the opposition’s comments should also be taken with a pinch of salt.
The party officially remains committed to EU accession talks. But at the same time, it has a policy of reversing the country’s name change. That would end the hard-won detente with neighbouring Greece and scupper any chance of membership negotiations.
Despite the latest knock-back, reactions in North Macedonia have been relatively low-key.
There have been no large-scale protests or acts of violence. After almost three decades of diplomatic blockage, people have become hardened to disappointment.
‘Devastating for young Macedonians’
But young people in particular may take the view that their future lies elsewhere, exacerbating the population decline which is already a serious issue.
“It’s devastating for people who hoped we would have quick changes,” says Blazhen Mileski, who works with youth pressure group Reactor.
“We will see more direct action from young people to leave, go to the EU and live there. People don’t have a clear idea of what EU wants from us. Young people will see their future outside the country, because they don’t see an EU path.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the French veto “an historic mistake”, warning that it would seriously compromise the EU’s influence across the Western Balkans.
Russia eyes an opportunity
There have already been consequences.
The leader of the party that won the most votes in Kosovo’s recent parliamentary election has suggested scrapping the European Integration Ministry. And Serbia could sign a free trade agreement with the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) without worrying too much about the implications.
Ever the mischief-maker, Moscow has floated the possibility of inviting Albania and North Macedonia to join the EAEU as well – a suggestion immediately shot down by Mr Zaev.
All of North Macedonia’s political parties insist they remain focused on getting EU membership talks underway. And the confirmation of Nato membership, which should arrive within the next few months, will be a significant consolation.
But EU accession negotiations were supposed to provide the structure to bring North Macedonia under the rule of law. And as long as Emmanuel Macron remains in charge in France, it is difficult to see how those talks can start.