The Promise of European Integration: Breathing New Life into the Settlement of Bilateral Disputes


Introduction: Setting the stage

What is the impact of European integration in tense situations in Europe’s periphery? There is extensive literature on Europeanization and the influence of European integration in a number of public policy areas. But curiously little research attention has been paid to how the prospect of membership and the process of accession impacts on the dynamics of the settlement of disputes in Europe’s immediate neighborhood.[1] This paper seeks to shed light on this often overlooked issue. We offer insights into how the membership perspective increases the chances for the settlement of a dispute. We also aim to show that in the context of this process power imbalances still maintain a central role, and they may even be rearranged and renegotiated as a result of the disputing states’ different relationship to European integration, i.e. ,whether a state is already a full member of the European Union or simply an aspiring one, and as a result of being on the receiving end of various conditionalities. 

We illustrate these arguments by focusing primarily on the settlement of the so-called ‘name dispute’ between Greece and North Macedonia, a near three-decades long diplomatic spat that ended with the signing of the Prespa Agreement in June 2018. The Prespa deal can be considered key for our understanding of the dynamics existing between membership in European integration and dispute settlement processes. Symbolically, it carried significant weight for the efforts to stabilize the entire Balkan region, since it was one of the major unresolved political problems from the turbulent 1990s.

Background of the dispute

The name dispute was a 1990s reincarnation of the old Macedonian question, dating from the period of the demise of the Ottoman empire. In its modern manifestation it was a diplomatic dispute between Greece and the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, which was just exiting the Yugoslav federal state. From its inception, the dispute involved from diplomatic activity in the European Union. This is because Greece was successful in using its membership in the organization to increase its diplomatic leverage over its weaker northern neighbor (Tziampiris 2000). Much later, after the EU Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, the former Communist Balkan countries got an EU membership perspective; however, Athens managed to repeatedly block Skopje’s progress in the accession process at the European Council, despite the contrasting opinion of the European Commission. This was part and parcel of Greece’s broader diplomatic campaign to use the enlargement process as a tool for reaching favorable deals with neighbors (Armakolas and Triantafyllou 2017). 

While the dispute never escalated beyond the diplomatic row, it at times produced significant tensions between the two sides, heightening the patriotic emotions of both societies and repeatedly proving an obstacle to the efforts of the Western capitals to pacify the entire Balkan region and to integrate it into Western institutions. For example, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Greece imposed two trade embargoes on North Macedonia. Later, in 2008, It blocked Skopje’s entry to NATO against the explicit will of US diplomacy, and for years slowed down the former’s EU accession process.  

When the Prespa agreement was reached, it was hailed as a breakthrough for the region and potentially as a significant push for the agenda of Europeanizing the entire Western Balkans. But the reform and the Europeanization “push” subsequently lost steam. It was first the French who slowed down the region’s accession process by lobbying effectively for the reform of the enlargement methodology. And later, huge obstacles for North Macedonia were raised by Bulgaria’s veto, intended to pressure Skopje into accepting several conditions about how to regulate their bilateral relations. The new blockage on its EU accession process curbed North Macedonia’s enthusiasm to implement the terms of the Prespa Agreement, while in Athens a new government that had been opposed to a deal came to power in July 2019 (Armakolas, Petkovski and Voudouri 2020).

Prospects for settlement

In a broader sense, and taking into account the trajectory of the diplomatic spat over the last thirty years, decisive steps for de-escalating bilateral tensions were made and increased prospects for a settlement were manifested in periods when both sides aligned with US and EU thinking in foreign policy and also when the Western partners exhibited a measure of equidistance, avoiding the trap of empowering one or the other side. The potential for a solution to the name dispute was higher in the period that led to the Interim Accord signed in September 1995; in the period after the Ohrid agreement; after the Thessaloniki Summit of the EU; and, more recently, in the period of negotiations for reaching the Prespa Agreement and after its signing. 

In contrast, the potential for settling the dispute hit rock bottom when European member states fully supported the Greek demands at the start of the dispute; in the first half of the 1990s when a number of compromise solutions were rejected and Greece imposed two economic embargoes on the nascent state; when the United States recognized North Macedonia under its then constitutional name Republic of Macedonia in November 2004, thus alienating Athens; in the period around the Bucharest Summit of NATO when Athens effectively blocked Skopje’s membership in the Alliance; and, finally, in the period of growing authoritarian rule of Nikola Gruevski when North Macedonia gradually estranged its relations with the West.

The nature of protracted disputes

The name dispute can be seen as characteristic of a number of other enduring disputes in the Balkans. Such protracted disputes tend to be more than mere diplomatic quarrels and are often highly salient for an emotionally loaded public (Armakolas and Siakas 2022). They tend to either have at their core, or as a crucial component, some identity and cultural dimension. This makes them more complicated to resolve than mere material-based disputes. They, thus, attract the interest of the public opinion on both sides, with the public viewing the dispute in existential terms, perceiving potential compromises as threatening core elements of national identity. The expected political cost of a potential compromise means that the political personnel have fewer incentives to genuinely engage in negotiations for reaching an agreement. In addition, due to the protracted nature of the disputes and the fact that domestic political polarization runs high, the issue tends to become part of party wrangling and populism thrives.    

In the context of such complex and protracted disputes, European integration offers unparalleled opportunities for increasing the chances for mutual compromise. It offers promise for changing the dynamics of the dispute and for altering the payoff matrix for political elites. It provides incentives for both top-down initiatives and bottom-up support for reaching compromise solutions. European integration influences the fundamental political options available to actors and strongly affects their political preferences. And it shapes the scope of political opportunity in ways unfathomable to those not involved in the European project. European integration can have a deep impact in bilateral disputes.

The complexity of the problem

The Gordian knot of the name dispute: A cemented negative status quo and the hostile public opinion

The name dispute included a potent mix of factors making compromise less likely. The diplomatic dimensions of the dispute were quite complex, as evidenced by nearly three decades of UN-led mediation efforts. The fact that the core of the dispute involved the change of the name of a country at the demand of a neighbor, an unprecedented affair in international diplomacy, added to the complexity of the diplomatic effort. While the contours of a potential solution were outlined by international mediators early on, these ideas were unpalatable to the two societies and, at least in Greece, the necessity of a compromise was largely kept away from public discourse. This had the effect of strengthening the uncompromising views in Greek society and its public discourse. The fact that the dispute lasted for almost thirty years convinced many that a non-solution was preferable to a painful compromise. There was little incentive for political elites to reach an agreement and little motivation for the wider society to support it.   

Public opinion was a key component of the intractability of the dispute. Throughout the three decades of the diplomatic spat, Greek public opinion largely remained firmly against a compromise on the dispute (Armakolas and Siakas 2022). Moreover, in the period of the Bucharest Summit of NATO in 2008, when Athens effectively blocked Skopje’s entry into the Alliance, 84 percent of public opinion approved a Greek government veto. And this despite the fact that according to the same polls, one in two Greeks (48 percent) thought that the name Macedonia had been lost for good and Greece could not win this diplomatic battle. 

The decade of the severe economic crisis hardly changed  Greek public opinion. In a poll conducted before the negotiations for settling the dispute, 57 percent were adamant that any name agreed upon should not include any reference to the term Macedonia (Armakolas and Siakas 2016). The findings showed that the task of reaching an agreement would be difficult and that public opinion would be one of the key obstacles (Armakolas and Siakas 2022).     

In a new poll that was conducted almost two years later and at the height of the negotiation fervor, the percentage of negative attitudes had increased. By the time the Tsipras government was about to reach a compromise solution, 71.5 percent of the Greek public opinion rejected any reference to the term Macedonia for the mutually agreed name of the country (Armakolas and Siakas 2018). Moreover, 77 percent of respondents claimed that the issue was important or somewhat important to them, while 58 percent declared that the issue would determine their vote. 
Things were not easier on the side of North Macedonia. Frequent polls had provided ample evidence about ethnic Macedonians’ disquiet over the prospect of a compromise solution. The issue was important for 75 percent of the surveyed population (Eurothink 2018). Almost seven in ten (69.7 percent) of respondents had a negative opinion of Greece (Bozinovski 2016), while Greece was considered by far the biggest enemy of the country by ethnic Macedonians (Eurothink 2018). Before the start of the negotiations, 64.8 percent of all citizens were against any change in the name of the country in order to join EU and NATO, while among ethnic Macedonians, opposition to compromise climbed to 77.6 percent (Bozinovski 2016). Before the start of the negotiations, the name dispute had been a vote determinant for 51 percent of respondents (Bozinovski 2016). 

Later, during the negotiations in 2018, almost half of respondents, or 47 percent, were against any change in the name of the country. The solution that would be agreed upon a few months later, i.e., a composite name for all uses, domestic and international or erga omnes, was accepted only by 14.1 percent of the population in 2018 (IDSCS 2018). And the change in the constitution, which was again agreed upon in the Prespa deal, was accepted by only 16.4 percent of respondents (IDSCS 2018). 

The business as usual option

For a number of reasons, the business as usual scenario—i.e., avoiding the burden and the political cost of a difficult compromise—seemed the most likely for political elites in the two countries. The issue was intractable and complex to resolve, and public opinion was largely negative towards any compromise. The issue was salient for both sides; it entailed issues of high emotionality for the two publics and was seen as touching the core of their respective nations’ identities. There was seemingly little political incentive for the two governing elites to resolve the problem and many disincentives. 

Thus, the diplomatic deadlock appeared at face value to be preferable to all sides. In order to settle the dispute, both sides needed to enter complex negotiations that would inevitably bring painful compromises. With both sides accustomed to perceiving their own arguments as historically, politically and legally just, any compromise would inevitably be seen as a concession—if not a sell-out—to the opponent. Negotiating and agreeing on a compromise entailed high costs with uncertain returns. 

For Greece, reopening the issue would force Greek society to face the harsh reality that its northern neighbors had been known everywhere as Macedonia; and a compromise agreement would mean that the neighbors would thenceforth and forever, and with the explicit approval of Greece, use the term Macedonia, even if with some geographic qualifier. There was also the fear that the use of any geographic qualifier would in time fade, leaving the country being called simply as Macedonia, and with Greece having no diplomatic recourse to fight back. All these were highly unpopular prospects that could easily backfire for the Greek government. At the same time, Greek public opinion has traditionally been highly supportive of tough diplomatic action against Balkan neighbors. 

Thus, the potential cost for the Greek government was high. In contrast, the cost of maintaining the existing situation was seemingly much lower. Athens had borne the diplomatic cost of blocking Skopje’s membership to Western institutions, even if the blocking in the case of NATO was deemed illegitimate by the International Court of Justice. According to the Greek view, Athens could maintain this status quo with limited international cost for longer periods, waiting for more favorable circumstances. And in any case, for Greek political elites, evading serious negotiations meant that the issue was kept out of the policy agenda and far from the Greek public eye, thus avoiding potential popular backlash over the continued use of the term ‘Macedonia’ by their neighbors.

Similarly, for the side of North Macedonia, the potential cost of reaching an agreement was very high. Changing a country’s name at the behest of a neighbor was highly controversial, if not offensive, for any ethnic Macedonian. The diplomatic battle over the name deeply affected ethnic Macedonians, who saw in it the negation of their identity. Any compromise would be very contentious. The country was, after all, internationally recognized as Republic of Macedonia by roughly 150 countries, including four out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The international use of the name “Macedonia” was widespread. The provisional name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM), which was deemed offensive by ethnic Macedonians, was practically used only in official documents of international organizations. The overwhelming majority of ethnic Macedonians were absolutely convinced of the justness of their position and perceived the Greek diplomatic campaign as blackmail. As a result, the negotiations for reaching an agreement would entail high potential cost for the government, with “business as usual” being seen as a preferable option for many officials and ordinary citizens alike.

The catch: Greece’s diplomatic “nuclear weapon” and the limits of its effectiveness

As we have seen, public opinion presented a major obstacle and the “business as usual” path was anything but unreasonable. There is, however, a catch in this. In the long run, the “business as usual” option worked against the interests of both parties. It is pretty straightforward to understand why this was the case for the Macedonian side, which was indefinitely left out of the key Western institutions as a result of Greece’s ability to block membership in NATO and the EU. This immense leverage over North Macedonia was Greece’s diplomatic “nuclear weapon,” as a Macedonian colleague dramatically put it.[2]

But the Macedonian side had in the long run its own powerful political weapon. Given Skopje’s soft success in consolidating the overwhelming international use of the term Macedonia, Athens was presented with no other pathway for convincing its neighbors to agree on a deal than through the process of acceding to Western institutions. Greece’s so-called nuclear weapon could “evaporate” if the prospect of membership to Western institutions were to be taken out of the picture. This was effectively North Macedonia’s own “nuclear weapon.” 

And there were several ways through which this could come about: if, for example, for domestic or foreign policy reasons Skopje were to decide not to join Western institutions (think of a Bosnia scenario, where some fifteen years ago NATO membership was not a contentious issue, but today it is almost unthinkable); or if geopolitical bickering in the region were to intensify to such an extent that accession to NATO and the EU became much less likely; or, as could have been the most likely scenario among the three, if populist, anti-enlargement forces in Western Europe were to grow in strength and put an effective hold on further EU widening. 

Any of these three scenarios would in all likelihood dissolve Greece’s diplomatic advantage leading to the following predicament: Skopje would be left out of EU and NATO or out “in the cold,” as North Macedonia’s MFA Nikola Dimitrov has put it, but at the same time it would have kept the international use of the term Macedonia, with no incentive to ever negotiate with Greece. It would have been a failure for Greece on the name issue front and a failure for North Macedonia on the front of its membership in Western institutions: a mutual failure, which could be seen as an incentive for some sort of compromise.

The promise: The role of European integration

Core argument: Altering the payoff matrix through European integration

We argue that European integration offers unparalleled opportunities for resolving conflicts and settling disputes. A realistic prospect of membership shapes political possibilities and influences public policy. The scope of policy making widens, new policy options emerge, policy dilemmas recalibrate and extensive new resources are made available. Such a European perspective changes the political calculations, options and preferences of the political personnel involved in a dispute. At the same time, the prospect of acceding to the EU offers to societies alternatives, potential benefits and opportunities that allow for intransigent views to moderate in profound ways. 

The membership perspective potentially empowers or disempowers, offering formal or even extra-institutional tools for influence. At the same time the conditionality and the political pressure associated with membership offer great potential for hijack; and this hijack is not easily prevented or curtailed, especially in cases where major member states do not have great interest in putting a check on undue influence.

The Europeanization of disputes has a very particular meaning in Southeast Europe, which until recently, was the region that had the almost exclusive prerogative of the European perspective.[3] The role of the membership perspective is a powerful tool, but also one where such power and influence is not fully regulated and is contingent on the constellation of interested parties and influences, on whether these influences are aligned or not, and in what direction they are aligned. It is also an ambiguous role: European integration placates sides in a dispute and pulls actors away from military escalations or even serious diplomatic and political rows; but, at the same time, the same circumstances make the politics of solution more complex, increasing the number of intervening factors as well as potentially contributing to new power asymmetries, or changes to the initial balance of power.

European integration and second-generation agreements in the Balkans

To understand the importance of European integration, it is important at this point to make the distinction between two categories of agreements in the Balkans. The agreements of the first post-Communist decade—we could refer to them as first-generation agreements—were necessary to end, or facilitate the end of, serious armed conflicts in the Balkans, to prevent the escalation of tensions and low intensity warfare, and to ensure a smooth transition to a postwar status quo. The first generation agreements include the Washington Agreement, the Erdut Agreement, the Dayton Peace Accords, the UNSC Resolution 1244 and the Ohrid Framework Agreement. These agreements are difficult to fathom without the active military intervention and/or intensive diplomatic effort of the United States. 

In contrast, the second-generation agreements in the Balkans are about ending political disputes, rather than military confrontations. They entail creative political and sovereignty solutions that would lead to political transformation. They often encompass significant identity dimensions that are intertwined with complex political arrangements and solidified party-political regimes. But at the same time, they are future-oriented in that they invite political personnel to imagine their polities in a transformative fashion. Above all, these second-generation agreements in the Balkans involve a realistic chance of an EU membership perspective. If the first-generation required the active US military guarantee and diplomatic effort, the second-generation necessitates the promise of partaking in the transformative vision of European integration. 

Simply put, a number of agreements in the Balkans would not have been possible—or will not be possible—without the “Thessaloniki promise,” the EU’s commitment to the European perspective of the region. Examples of such second-generation agreements can be considered to be the Prespa Agreement, the 2017 agreement between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, or even the Brussels agreements between Belgrade and Pristina.

The difference European integration made for reaching the Prespa Agreement

The solution to the name dispute had been for years on the back burner, since for both sides the status quo seemed preferable to the political cost of an agreement. The lack of a realistic perspective for membership had even had serious negative consequences for the reform process, contributing to democratic backsliding in North Macedonia. Under the long rule of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the country slid towards authoritarianism, the prospects for accession faded yet more, and relations with Greece hit rock bottom. The political stagnation and authoritarian backsliding were reflected in the escalation of tensions in society, both between civic, pro-European actors and the government and between the main ethnicities in the country. By the mid-2010s, North Macedonia had turned from a relatively peaceful, politically stable and highly pro-Western country into a place with unprecedented party polarization, violent ethnic incidents and daily civic protests against the government.

Democratic backsliding, rampant corruption and the sense that the country got stuck in a post-Communist limbo provided the political and civic forces opposing the rule of Nikola Gruevski the platform for envisioning a radical change in the country through European integration. It was the promise of creating a European North Macedonia through political change that weakened the rule of the otherwise popular Macedonian Prime Minister. The ever-receding prospect of accession to the EU was the nail in the coffin of the legitimacy of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE government. Conversely, it was also the promise that the lives of ordinary citizens would improve through political change, serious reform and EU accession that made the formerly unelectable Social Democrats much more attractive. That promise of the transformation of North Macedonia through European integration in turn made the prospect of a compromise with Greece more palatable. Revitalizing the prospect of membership and reimagining policy reform through European integration became the driving force for settling the name dispute. 

Correspondingly, though not in the same dramatic circumstances, European integration also provided the impetus for a compromise for the Greek side. As we have seen above, the paradox of the Greek leverage was that it rested on the prospect of European membership for North Macedonia. The prospect of membership gave to the Greek side the only narrow path for a mutually agreed solution to the name dispute. Moreover, it was the prospect of Greece Europeanizing its foreign policy that presented a promise for Greece. Ending its policy of obstruction and seizing the momentum of change in North Macedonia offered Greece the opportunity to win back its role as an important regional player in the Balkans. Greece had been a champion of the EU integration of the entire Balkan region. But the name dispute stood in the way of Greece being recognized as one of the key European players in the process. Finally, after several years of economic crisis, and especially after a showdown between the leftist Greek government and the EU in 2015, the prospect of resolving the name dispute promised a “return to normality” for Greece.[4]

Swaying public opinion and the role of European integration

Public opinion in both countries remained quite skeptical or even downright hostile throughout the negotiation process for the Prespa Agreement and during the difficult seven months until the ratification process was completed. But for both sides, the promise of changing public attitudes in the future was more important than temporary difficulties. Indeed, cracks in the solid opposition to compromise started to appear, especially in North Macedonia, where the promise of European integration was tightly connected to resolving problems with neighbors.

In North Macedonia, well before any prospect of settling the name dispute appeared, 64.8 percent of all respondents rejected a name change for achieving membership in EU and NATO, while the rejection rate went up to 77.6 percent among ethnic Macedonians (Bozinovski 2016). The mood had largely reversed by 2018, when the negotiations were ongoing, but the full picture of the far-reaching compromises was yet to become clear to the public: 61 percent of all respondents favored a change for achieving membership, while 58 percent of ethnic Macedonians also accepted the prospect. In reality, these highly favorable numbers, which were to be partly reversed later, reflected the optimism about the future in view of an agreement, but also revealed a lack of foresight about the complexity and difficult nature of the upcoming compromise. 

This euro-optimism becomes crystal clear when one compares responses to another poll question gauging attitudes about North Macedonia’s chances of joining the EU in the near future. The percentage of respondents who thought that this was a realistic prospect went up by 70 percentage points between 2016, when the country was in the midst of the serious political crisis that eventually brought down the VMRO-DPMNE government, and 2018, when the new reformist government under Zaev was in the process of settling disputes with neighbors in order to de-block the EU accession process (Eurothink 2018). Moreover, in 2013, those who preferred to keep the name of the country intact even at the expense of Euro-Atlantic integration were 20 percent higher than those willing to compromise (49.9 percent and 29.4 percent respectively), while by 2018, in contrast, the percentages were almost reversed, with those willing to compromise at 49.7 percent and those against any change in the name at 35 percent (IDSCS 2018). 

The promise of winning over public opinion strengthened further in the next couple of years, until citizens of North Macedonia became fully aware of the extent to which Bulgaria was determined to raise barriers to the country’s EU accession process. In 2021, 47 percent of respondents in North Macedonia thought that the Prespa Agreement was a necessary compromise. While a good part of the population recognized that finally reconciling with neighbors had intrinsic value, the majority still strongly associated the process of reconciliation with the merits of the wider process of joining the EU (Armakolas, Damjanovski and Siakas 2021). 

Also in the 2021 poll, a question was posed about whether respondents would have supported the Prespa Agreement had they known about the postponement of the EU accession process that was to follow due to the new obstacles that emerged. Thirty-nine percent of respondents responded affirmatively, presumably accepting the inherent value of mending relations with Greece. In contrast, 31 percent were undecided (perhaps they would support) and 30 percent declared that they would not support the agreement. Both groups of respondents—a total of 61 percent of the sample—attributed significance to the realistic prospect for membership and linked it to the question of reconciliation with neighbors (Armakolas, Damjanovski and Siakas 2021). 

Overall, the public opinion in North Macedonia was skeptical and reluctant to accept an unpopular compromise. But the promise of European integration made the bitter pill “easier to swallow.” The compromise was made more palatable through the hope instilled for acceleration of the European integration process and through the incentives linked to accession that were an integral part of the agreement. Even three years after the signing of the agreement, and despite the fact that new obstacles were raised in the process of North Macedonia’s accession process, public opinion there recognized the merits of reconciling with Greece. They realistically saw in the European integration process both the driver and the main incentive for settling disputes with neighbors.  

Public opinion in Greece was a more intricate problem and presented a more complex picture. This is because the incentives and benefits for the Greek public have been less robust and less visible, and also because of the manner in which the Greek political elites have avoided educating the Greek public and speaking openly about the problem over a period of almost three decades. In the case of Greece, the structure of incentives was different, more complex and more clearly recognized by political elites and decision makers than the wider public. Data from 2021 show that the opposition to the compromise remained a majority force, but the rates were reduced compared to the period of the negotiations: 60.5 percent in 2021, down from 71.5 percent in 2018 (Armakolas, Damjanovski and Siakas 2021). 

In addition, a considerable majority of 59.5 percent of the public deemed the compromise necessary. By 2021, there was a balance between those respondents who viewed the Prespa Agreement as bringing benefits and those who considered it as damaging (Armakolas, Damjanovski and Siakas 2021). Thus, even in the case of Greek public opinion, which was structurally less inclined to a compromise based on European integration incentives, a slow but sound change in attitudes could be observed.

Making sense of it all and an agenda for the future

Understanding the impact of European integration

The positive influence on settling disputes can be considered as EU impact at its best, even when EU actorness is not necessarily actively there. This is because it is not merely a question of EU agency. Rather, the influence of the EU, through the European integration process, is deeper and more comprehensive. It is in fact structuring the realm of political possibility, rather than simply influencing actors. Because of the prospect of enabling states to partake in the unique international process of European integration, the EU is radically transforming the policy environment. This is a defining feature that enables solutions and policy change that would be virtually impossible otherwise.  

European integration and the membership perspective is a powerful but also ambivalent tool and process. It empowers some and disempowers others in a dispute. It offers formal or even extra-institutional possibilities and instruments for pressure and influence. The pull factor is important for moderating social attitudes and for creating an environment that is favorable to resolving disputes. But this influence works best and works mostly for countries that are in the gray zone between membership and non-European perspective. It also works for countries that will eventually join the EU, but before they do. As the case of the dispute between Slovenia and Croatia over the delimitation of maritime zones and other cases have shown, the leverage of member states tends to drastically reduce after the other side to the dispute achieves membership. 

Contrariwise, sides in disputes that are member states tend to be more immune to the influence produced by the enlargement process. Thus, the paradox: European integration is a driver for compromise for candidates but does not work as much for existing member states—or can even set the stage for blockages by them. Blockages by member states are more likely especially when they are fully conscious of the leverage that comes from being an EU member and are determined to use this leverage in full. 

Moreover, the hardening of positions of a member state may happen when the overall EU perspective is weakening. Even smaller and less powerful member states can play their cards more effectively and increase the Europeanization of a dispute when the European perspective is weak due to major states’ reluctance over the future of the accession process. More powerful EU member states are less willing to use their diplomatic clout to exert pressure for a more equitable solution when enlargement policy is not a priority. 

But this could become a double-edged sword for the member state. A very weak European perspective is less likely to convince political actors and public opinion in a candidate state that the prospect of accession is credible. In other words, the leverage of member states is higher when the prospects for eventual membership remain realistic, even if distant. In contrast, if the chances for membership become only theoretical and with virtually no realistic prospect, the leverage of member states in a dispute will tend to drop to zero. A very weak accession prospect will likely decrease the appetite for compromise, lessen the leverage of the EU and its member states, and increase the resistance to a painful compromise. 

In this sense, we should be mindful of the closely related lesson of the candidacy of Turkey. In times when membership seemed more realistic, Ankara made significant steps in the direction of solving the Cyprus problem and in finding common ground with Greece for settling their several bilateral disputes and problems. In contrast, Turkey turned intransigent, and later charted a path of full confrontation with Greece, after it became clear that its accession process had turned into a hollow shell with zero chance of EU membership.

An agenda for the future: What solutions?

The opportunities that European integration offers for reconciliation and dispute settlement are enormous. The EU cannot pretend not to recognize the power it holds or the undue leverage that it creates. It needs to be prepared to make use of the former and put limits on the latter. For understanding the full potential and being vigilant for potential negative side effects, analysis needs to comprehend such power and dynamics. Both policy makers and analysts need to be more conscious of the catalytic role of membership perspective, the potential for hijack and the impact on the balance of power and its asymmetries.

What is the way forward? One answer could be to design alternatives, tools and political initiatives that may offset the potential negative side effects inbuilt in the accession process as well as ensuring that European diplomacy and the EU as geopolitical actor take full advantage of the advantages that the accession process offers for influence. In what follows, we propose tentative pathways for change. These remain initial thoughts that require more elaboration as well as more work for their policy operationalization. They are also not mutually exclusive; ideally the EU should aim to adopt as many of these solutions as is politically realistic.

Solution 1: Develop a new repertoire of diplomatic tools
The EU should develop a repertoire of diplomatic tools that may be used preventively or for limiting escalation of tensions in disputes or conflicts. Europe has not as yet managed to develop a set of diplomatic skills that creatively combines the leverage of enlargement instruments with classic mediation and conflict prevention know-how. In fact, the EU ought to develop its own culture of mediating in disputes and conflicts in its own backyard and the wider area of immediate geopolitical concern. This European culture of mediation should entail a particular set of instruments tailored to the political, diplomatic and economic capabilities of the EU, necessary resources, and a culture of “doing things the European way,” from ensuring that democratic standards, values and rights are respected to adjusting policies and interventions to the European pillars of policymaking. The institutional machinery that will develop such tools need not be large and highly bureaucratic, and much of it can be subsumed under the structures of the European External Action Service. But what is important is to be in sync with—to comprehend the potential and make use of—the dynamics created by other EU policies, including enlargement policy.

Solution 2: Upgrade the EU’s role in the formal mediation process
The EU could have a greater formal role in the process of settling disputes. The European integration process offers great incentives for reaching settlements, but also for changing political dynamics and power asymmetries; at the same time, the EU does not necessarily have a role in the process, not even one of facilitator. It is often even absent from managing the policy effects that its own policies and tools produce. Or, in fact, it often tends to avoid taking responsibility for managing such policy effects. “More rather than less Europe” could be one of the solutions to disputes.

Solution 3: Offset excess power asymmetries and develop incentives for member states
The enlargement process is highly effective as an incentive for compromise for candidate states and much less so for already existing member states. That, as we have seen, creates a structurally asymmetrical relationship that needs to be offset. The EU, through its own instruments, should make efforts not to overly empower member states at the expense of candidates. And it should develop ways to curtail the misuse of member states’ leverage.[5] The EU should also develop narratives and arguments around disputes and the conflict resolution processes that also work for member states. For that to happen, the EU should construct tools that increase the benefits for member states but not at the expense of the weaker side in a dispute.

Solution 4: Empower the pro-EU actors
In order for the EU to have meaningful and impactful interventions in disputes along the lines that have been outlined above, it needs to develop a set of incentives for both top-down and bottom-up influences in the process. Currently, the EU does not have the foresight to fully comprehend and anticipate the political stances of either elite or grassroots actors, especially in the way in which they implicate the dynamics of European integration in the political process and the dispute settlement efforts. Ideally, the EU should include in its repertoire of tools that aim to aid the settlement process ideas, policies and resources that empower those actors and promote the idea of reconciliation through European integration. Importantly, such tools should be developed not only for candidate countries, their political personnel and societies but also for EU member states. 

Solution 5: Reckon with identity dimensions in disputes
As European integration moves closer to regions with protracted bilateral disputes and conflicts involving questions of sovereignty, the EU and its enlargement tools will increasingly encounter complex and sensitive confrontations over identity, heritage and culture. The entrenched nature of such difficult to resolve identity problems has not escaped the EU mediators’ thinking. It is partly for this reason that we have seen “creative ambiguity” being deployed by the EU as an instrument for reaching agreements, for example between Serbia and Kosovo (Bieber 2015). But while including identity provisions in agreements will likely prove a prerequisite for reconciling hostile neighbors, the move is itself quite controversial and it may very well prove to be a double-edge sword—the medicine that could kill rather than cure.[6] To offset the risk, the EU will need to reckon with identity dimensions and prepare a set of tools and ideas tailored for that particular dimension of the dispute and the settlement. Among many ideas proposed (Armakolas 2021), the following are some measures to be adopted by the EU: identify early on the risk factors and formulate prevention strategies, including a roadmap for political burden sharing between governments and oppositions and between the two governments involved; develop from the outset a positive agenda for building cross-border societal trust; receive expert advice on the post-agreement dynamics of identity provisions; identify and support civic agents of actors who can become the vanguard for the (unpopular) cross-border reconciliation drive; design relevant programming and make available early on European funding tailored specifically to support groups and initiatives that aid the process.

In lieu of a conclusion: The Bulgarian debacle as testing Euro-optimism in dispute settlement

The recent reconfiguration of the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia in the context of Skopje’s EU accession process offers yet more useful observations about the power of enlargement. The manner in which Sofia managed to utilize the accession process to force Skopje to make crucial concessions is telling. It demonstrates that the learning curve for EU member states, even those that are relatively new and less powerful, is anything but steep. They relatively quickly learn how to use the advantage of membership in their effort to gain a diplomatic upper hand in a dispute. 

Another relevant observation from the Bulgarian case is that once a bilateral problem becomes part of the domestic political agenda, the political stances will tend to harden as a result of political party bickering, with negative consequences for public opinion. Thus, EU member states will tend to Europeanize their disputes and the domestic political actors will tend to reinforce an approach to the dispute that aims to corner the opponent/candidate state. 

Finally, the trend in the process of EU enlargement is towards more rather than less politicization. The role of the member states is growing, and the new methodology introduced by the European Commission will make the process even more political. We should, thus, expect that in the years to come the scope for political influence in disputes on the part of member states will likely grow. 

All in all, the EU must become more serious about understanding the enormous power of the instruments it holds, the leverage it affords to member states, the political potentials that it creates through the membership perspective, and even its power to shape possibilities and political preferences in a dispute. All these offer unparalleled opportunities for positive influence, but also have the potential for some negative effects or biases. This power can be used for good, i.e., to increase the geopolitical weight of the EU, its positive political influence, its contribution to democratization, peacebuilding and the reconciliation process. But this power can be misused: to increase the undue influence of member states, to weaken the very possibilities for resolution of disputes that European integration creates, or even drive wedges that can be exploited by the EU’s geopolitical competitors.

[1] For a rare book length examination of the issue, see Bickl (2021)
[2] This was in the context of a closed workshop attended by key stakeholders from North Macedonia and it was held shortly before the start of the negotations that led to the Prespa agreement. 
[3] For that reason it would be analytically and politically less useful to compare a dispute in the Balkans with one, for example, in the Middle East, since the membership perspective, which exists in the former and not in the latter region, drastically changes the political circumstances and conditions. In contrast, it may be more insightful to consider comparisons with disputes involving Turkey. Both because a comparative framework can be drawn between the period when Turkey had a realistic membership perspective and today; and because it may illustrate the dynamics of power asymmetries with member states – for example cases where power asymmetries may be offset by other factors versus cases where such asymmetries are more pronounced. 
[4] For a brief analysis of the motivations of the two leaderships as well as of the necessary components that made the success possible, see Armakolas and Petkovski (2019).
[5] A more drastic idea that have been proposed for remedying the problems of obstacles to the accession process has been to introduce the qualified majority voting—55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the EU population—for all intermediate phases of the accession process; i.e. to maintain the member states’ veto option for the final decision to allow accession, but not for the process of opening and closing accession negotiation chapters (see Cvijic and Cerimagic 2020; Dimitrov et al. 2022). Though this idea has been proposed to address the broader problem of the weakening of the EU membership perspective, if introduced, it would also have the effect to reduce the structural inequality between member states and candidate countries. 
[6] I develop arguments around this issue in some detail in Armakolas (2021).

Armakolas, Ioannis (2021) Identity provisions in agreements: medicine that cures or kills?, Blog analysis for Europe’s Futures website. Available:

Armakolas, Ioannis, Ivan Damjanovski and George Siakas (2021) The prospects of the Prespa Agreement. Public perceptions in North Macedonia and Greece. Research Report, Skopje and Athens: Public Opinion Resaerch Unit-University of Macedonia, Institute of Democracy-Societas Civilis, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

Armakolas, Ioannis, and Ljupcho Petkovski (2019) Blueprint Prespa? Lessons Learned from the Greece-North Macedonia Agreement. Skopje: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

Armakolas, Ioannis, Ljupcho Petkovski, Alexandra Voudouri (2020) The Prespa Agreement one yar after ratification: from enthusiasm to uncertainty?. Research Report, Skopje: Eurothink

Armakolas, Ioannis and George Siakas (2022) ““Why did It take so long?” Exploring Greek public opinion as an obstacle to the settlement of the Macedonia name dispute”. Nationalities Papers, Vol.50, No.3, pp. 569-588

Armakolas, Ioannis and George Siakas (2018) What’s in a name?  Greek public attitudes towards the ‘name dispute’ and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2018. Research Report, Athens: ELIAMEP

Armakolas, Ioannis and George Siakas (2016) Greek public opinion and attitudes towards the ‘name dispute’ and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Research Report, Athens: ELIAMEP

Armakolas, Ioannis and Giorgos Triantafyllou (2017) “Greece and EU enlargement to the Western Balkans: understanding an ambivalent relationship”. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Vol.17, No.4, pp.611-629

Bickl, Thomas (2021) The border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia. The stages of a protracted conflict and its implications for EU enlargement. Cham: Springer

Bieber, Florian (2015) “The Serbia-Kosovo agreements: An EU success story?.” Review of Central and East European Law, Vol. 40, No.3-4, pp.285–319

Bozinovski, Vladimir (2016) Јавното мислење за спорот со името, перцепција на македонско-грчките односи и ЕУ и НАТО интеграции. Skopje: Institute for Political Research

Cvijic, Srdjan and Adnan Cerimagic (2020) Rebuilding our house of cards: with more glue, Policy Paper no.50, Skopje: Institute for Democracy-Societas Civilis 

Dimitrov, Nikola, Srdjan Cvijić, Isabelle Ioannides, Amanda Coakley, Oana Popescu-Zamfir, Valbona Zeneli, Ioannis Armakolas, Stefan Lehne, Rosa Balfour, Zoran Nechev (2022) What is to be done? The war, the Western Balkans and the EU. Policy Brief, Vienna: Erste Stiftung & Institute for Human Sciences

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Tziampiris, Aristotle (2000) Greece, European Political Cooperation and the Macedonian Question, Aldershot: Ashgate

The last substantial changes to this text were made in December 2022.

This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.