With the Prespes agreement, Greece secured the immediate change of the international name of its northern neighbor to “North Macedonia” (a compound name with a geographical qualifier). This was, to a large extent, in agreement with the widely accepted Greek national line. This arrangement was also introduced into the internal legal order of the neighboring country through the revision of its constitution. However, the domestic use of this compound name, according to the agreement, will be gradually extended in line with the pace of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. Therefore, it depends on the evolution of a process that is under the political control of the EU member-states and not the parties of the Prespes agreement.
In return, Greece agreed to North Macedonia immediately becoming a NATO member (this has already happened) and to the opening of accession negotiations with the EU, insofar as this depends on the policy and vote of our country. In addition, Greece agreed to the characterization as “Macedonian” of the citizenship of the citizens of North Macedonia, the official language of the country (art. 1 (3)(b) and (3)(c) respectively), but also of the national identity of its citizens, in the sense of self-determination, through the use of the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” with the meaning given to these terms in Article 7 of the Agreement, to which Art. 1 (3)(d) also refers.
These three points, concerning citizenship, language and national identity, did not allow me to vote in favor of the ratification of the agreement, as I felt that the balance of power and the momentum that led to the conclusion of the agreement could make for clearer and better arrangements. I thought that the agreement did not contain the best possible amount of balance.
Since its signing however, the balance of the agreement has been upset in much more fundamental ways. Among North Macedonia’s aspirations, the ones that have already been achieved are NATO membership and participation in almost all international organizations, and in the UN at least, under the composite name of North Macedonia. The guarantees that Greece was seeking have already led to the revision of the Constitution of North Macedonia in line with explicit international obligations that constitute international treaty terms that supersede domestic law, as per international law and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969).
Despite all this, the domestic use of the name “North Macedonia” has not started being used extensively, as there has been no progress toward the start of accession negotiations with the EU. Greece’s positive attitude, which is also an international obligation, cannot compensate for Bulgaria’s objections or the choice of many member-states not to open a new round of EU enlargement. What is more, the European policy on the Western Balkans region has now started to operate as a destabilizing factor in the region. The social and political conditions that led to the current political crisis in North Macedonia – obviously along with other domestic reasons – are an aspect of this.
I see now some critics and opponents of the Prespes agreement in Greece rejoicing and appearing ready to accept, with relief and satisfaction, the abandonment of the agreement by a possible new government of North Macedonia with a different political orientation from the government of Zoran Zaev.
I use the legally imprecise term “abandonment” because, fortunately, the termination of the agreement is subject to the strict requirements of the agreement itself and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
At the time of writing, however, after what has already happened, the validity and respect of the Prespes agreement, as required by international law and the principle of state continuity that binds both parties, is in the vital interest of the Hellenic Republic. To think that we can relieve North Macedonia of its obligations under the Prespes agreement in order to put more effective pressure on it ahead of the start of accession negotiations with the EU is a naive and dangerous view. It renders Greece a part of the – once again open – issue of the Western Balkans and relieves Bulgaria of the responsibility of dealing with its own reservations and sensitivities, but above all it allows many other EU member-states to cover up their objections and perplexity, which makes the prospect of the Western Balkan countries’ accession too far off and dim in practice.
At the level of international law, it may allow a new, adventurous government of the neighboring country to exempt itself from the obligation to use the composite name internally, to seek the reversal of the revision of the constitution, which of course requires an enhanced majority of two-thirds of the total number of MPs, or even to claim the international use of the so-called constitutional name (if it has in the meantime been restored according to this version) without the qualifier “North.”
Therefore, regardless of the view one might have had at the time of the signing and ratification of the Prespes agreement, the responsible national position that must constitute a unified national strategy is now to insist on the obligation of the other side to fully respect the Prespes agreement, as this also preserves the consequent obligation of international organizations and third states to respect the provisions of the agreement. The Prespes agreement prevails, according to the so-called monist perception, over the Constitution of North Macedonia and sets an international legal barrier to any internal extreme populist perceptions in the neighboring country.
Needless to say, legal barriers are not enough. Obviously, the international community will insist on the respect and implementation of the Prespes agreement and will exert strong pressure. This pressure, however, should only be addressed to the other party. Greece, for reasons of national interest and respect for international law, must assume a clear and firm position in favor of the validity and respect of the agreement and act as an active and reliable member of the EU and the international community as a whole. There is no room for nationalist-populist irresponsibility on the Greek side either.
Evangelos Venizelos is a former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. He is professor of constitutional law at the Law School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.