North Macedonia To Become Part Of NATO: What Does This Mean For The Future Of The Alliance?

The Greek Parliament voted 153-140 to approve North Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol this Friday, ending a 27 year-long dispute between the two nations. This vote was a direct response to a constitutional amendment passed by the Macedonian parliament earlier this month allowing for the implementation of the Prespa Agreement with Greece. Under the terms of the proposal, Macedonia agreed to change its name to North Macedonia so as to indicate that they have no territorial aspirations on the northeastern province of Greece that bears the same name. The ratification by Greece is the last step in North Macedonia’s NATO accession process and, therefore, their admittance should be forthcoming over the next couple of months. Although the agreement was strongly opposed by Greek and Macedonian nationalists alike, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev worked tirelessly to forge the agreement and normalize their nations’ diplomatic relations for the first time. As a result, North Macedonia will not only become a NATO member state, but also potentially complete their EU ascension process in the near future as well.

The agreement marks a historic point not only in the relationship between Athens and Skopje, but also for the entire Balkan region. This was noted by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a press event at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. Stoltenberg spoke to the present reach of the organization by stating that “NATO keeps almost one billion citizens across Europe and North America secure.” He then continued to underline the positive impact the agreement will have, saying that North Macedonia’s “accession will bring more stability to the Western Balkans [and] is good for the region and for Euro-Atlantic security” by furthering bringing the region into the international community.

Although the response from the international community has been largely positive, negotiations to allow Macedonian accession nearly toppled the Greek ruling coalition. Al Jazeera reports that Greek opinion polls indicated that over two-thirds of Greeks opposed making the deal. Despite these pressures however, Tsipras decided that diminishing Russian presence and developing more amicable relationships in the region was preferable to short term public disapproval. The benefits of this action apply not only to North Macedonia’s NATO bid, but also to the potential bids of other former-Yugoslav republics in the future. While North Macedonia will only be the third former-Yugoslav republic to join NATO and the EU since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s – following only Slovenia and Croatia – this move could embolden other states in the region to pivot toward the west as well. Such a trajectory may be viewed as a development in favour of the European Project as it aligns former communist states toward the west and away from Russia. However, the addition of more states to NATO in the EU could also have a potentially harmful affect to European stability and security. For example, the Article 5 of the NATO charter advocates for collective defence by stating that “an attack against one Ally is an attack an attack against all Allies.” Although this principle may seem to reinforce security, it could also topple the entire alliance. Article 5 has only ever been enacted once – after the September 11th attacks on the United States – therefore, foreign policy experts worry that should NATO be forced to enact Article 5 again they may refuse and the alliance would cease to exist. The admission of more small eastern European states dramatically increases the likelihood that Russian aggression could allow this to happen, and therefore NATO should proceed slowly and ensure the continued cooperation of all other member states.

Regardless of these concerns, there are still several other nations in the process of gaining NATO membership. As of December 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina have an established Membership Action Plan (MAP), which enables them to receive individualized advice and support about how to join the alliance. Both Georgia and Ukraine are in the Intensified Dialogue stage as of September 2006 and April 2005 respectively, which is the precursor step to establishing a MAP. Should these membership accessions continue as North Macedonia’s has, Russian-European relations will conceivably become more strained, potentially undermining stability and peace in the region moving forward.

Since the Russian reaction to North Macedonia’s acceptance to NATO will likely be loud and aggressive, it is essential that NATO does not show hesitation. If Russia suspects that some countries in the alliance would hesitate to enact Article 5 to protect the grown number of newly admitted countries, they would likely try to exploit this weakness to undermine trust in the system as a whole. Therefore, for the sake of maintaining security in the region as well as globally, NATO must guarantee that all member countries are vocally willing to defend one another so as to deter Russia from making any preemptive strikes.

Luke O'Grady