It has taken almost 25 years to get an agreement between the governments in Athens and Skopje on what to call the entity once known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a minor development — particularly now, when the unity of the trans-Atlantic alliance is at its lowest point since World War II and the unity of the European Union is under challenge in every national election.
In fact, the historic compromise to rename the country the Republic of Northern Macedonia, thus softening a rivalry over national histories, opens a window of opportunity for leaders in Europe and the United States to defy current trends and begin shaping a secure future for the Balkans, an achievement that would help secure stability for all of Europe.
The hard-won agreement on Macedonia could still be undermined. The region is known for its tragic history. It’s where World War I began, and it is the site of the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.
Since the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, however, the region’s prospects have brightened as states have moved toward European Union and NATO membership. Slovenia and Croatia are already in the European Union; Montenegro and Serbia are candidates; Albania can follow, as can Northern Macedonia, now that the naming dispute has been resolved.
However, the United States and Europe are not the only players in the region. Russia has made it clear that it will interfere if its interests are threatened, especially when it comes to potential NATO membership. It has already done so, in a failed putsch in Montenegro in 2016. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is making his presence felt in every state, and China is now one of the largest investors in the region, with ambitious plans to make the Balkans the main entry point into Europe of its One Belt, One Road initiative.
A resolute response is needed to counter these trends, but it will not prove easy. The European Union is suffering from accession fatigue. Some of its thorniest problems come from countries that have joined since 2004 — the longstanding border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia; Turkey’s presence in Cyprus; and, perhaps most significantly, the antidemocratic actions of Poland and Hungary. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said last month that there can be no further European accession until Europe reforms itself.
The vast majority of the Balkan region’s population wants close links with the West, particularly European Union membership. That is true even in relatively pro-Russia Belgrade. Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, was in Slobodan Milosevic’s government during the NATO bombings in 1999, yet he has pinned his entire legacy on his ambitions for Serbia’s integration into Europe. He and Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, have forged a strong relationship that has helped stabilize the region.
A bold regional initiative to create a Balkan economic union modeled on the laws of the European Union could take advantage of the people’s pro-Western ambitions. This has already been endorsed by the region’s leaders, particularly Mr. Vucic. Even an informal union would deliver tangible benefits to the estimated 18 million inhabitants of the region as well as Europe and the United States, and would ease the member states’ integration into the European Union.
The union is not an imposition; it is a choice. Last July, the countries of the western Balkans pledged to intensify cooperation. Now they must follow through and create a common market. That would allow the region to modernize financial markets and improve their governments’ finances without policy solutions being dictated from Brussels or Washington. The free flow of people, goods and capital would make the entire region more attractive for investment and strengthen transport and infrastructure. This would create more jobs and help stem the rampant flight of young people to Western Europe.
Improving each country’s economy and governance is the best way to build deep and broad political support to join the European Union. It would also give the European Union an option not to admit each state one by one, but to admit them as a unit that might be more aligned with European laws and standards than some existing members are. This union would help avoid reigniting regional rivalries. States could also work together to resolve the most significant political barriers to European Union admission of any single country, including territorial disputes, corruption and organized crime. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which remains mired in the complicated legacy of the Dayton agreement and Kosovo, has the furthest to go.
Still, the resolution of Macedonia’s dispute with Greece presents a historic opportunity. Both Europe (Britain included) and the United States need to become enthusiastic supporters of this economic union in the Balkans. Such a union would not be a reincarnation of the former Yugoslavia. It would be a loose association of states united by free trade and the movement of people and goods, along the lines of the European Union in its early days. Increased prosperity and cohesion among these states would make them less susceptible to influence — economic, diplomatic or military — from Beijing, Ankara or Moscow.
The consequences of inaction would be dire. If the Western powers fail to keep the Balkan countries on track toward local cooperation and eventual European Union membership, these states will be pushed, and possibly divided, into the spheres of influence of Russia, Turkey and China, effectively Balkanizing the Balkans once again.
George Soros is the founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations. Alexander Soros is the deputy chairman of the Open Society Foundations.