In the words of the Macedonian president Gjorgje Ivanov to German newspaper Bild, “Macedonia is protecting Europe from itself.” It shouldn’t be.
Just weeks after using a battering ram in an attempt to storm the Greek-Macedonian border, stranded migrants have resorted to new means. Finding a weakness in the border by going through the Greek village of Hamilo, several hundred migrants have now illegally crossed into Macedonia, resorting to river crossings that have resulted in the deaths of three. Macedonian police officials have made statements saying that the plan is to return all of them to Greece, and as of March 15th, some 1,500 have been returned. Furthermore, reports indicate that Greek forces have made little attempt to stop the migrants from entering Macedonia illegally.
Macedonia has now gone above and beyond what is necessary to deal with a crisis that was not of its own making. The European Union has, time and again, proven itself to be feckless on this issue. Even with the promise of the admittedly idealistic plan with Turkey, the facts remain; The European Union is balkanized in its decision making. The recent border closings and anti-immigrant backlash have taken their toll on support for Merkel’s plans. Merkel has clearly pivoted from her earlier stance even going so far as to having admitted recently that the closing of the Balkan travel passage has been beneficial for Germany. So, where does this leave Macedonia?
President Ivanov: “Macedonia had achieved nothing out of the European Union, no EU membership, no Schengen zone and no NATO”
In the middle of an EU tug of war.
The Balkan state, an EU and NATO hopeful, is having a baptism by fire on its path towards integration into both organizations. Bowing under pressure from EU countries such as Austria and Hungary, it has also recently severely restricted border crossings. It has been attempting to please key players in the inner-circle of these institutions , but has received nothing in return. Macedonia is no closer to receiving an EU invitation than it was five years ago. Now Macedonia finds itself torn between relieving pressure on Greece’s side (an EU and Schengen member state) and also keeping a low migrant flow as to not overwhelm countries like Germany, Slovenia, and Austria, where border controls have been put in place. This is a zero-sum game for Macedonia and the rest of Europe; any benefit Europe receives from the closing of the Balkan route, will be offset by the losses incurred by Macedonia from the instability on its border.
As President Ivanov said, “Macedonia had achieved nothing out of the European Union, no EU membership, no Schengen zone and no NATO,” he said. “Nobody wants us.” Except when they need us. Particularly in dumping the responsibility of protecting Europe on a tiny, non-member state.
Macedonia has jeopardized its own security and stability in the name of ensuring stability for the EU member states. Keeping the borders closed has not benefited Macedonia one iota. There have been frequent clashes with Macedonian police, ranging from protests to rocks being thrown. The benefit has been solely directed to Western Europe. For example, President Ivanov reports that some 9,000 forged passports have been confiscated, leaving the door open to the possibility of infiltration by extremists into Western Europe. The EU is using Macedonia at this point. Its aspirations to become a member have worked quite well in convincing it to also implement border controls.
Unfortunately, Macedonia’s leaders continue to believe that appeasing Europe’s demands put it one step closer to further integration into organizations such as NATO. When this is all said and done, and the migrant situation is dealt with, Macedonia will be simply be thanked for its cooperation and be given another veto by Greece when it applies for EU and NATO membership.
At this juncture, Macedonia bears no responsibility to Europe. Macedonia is only a pass-through country for the migrants, as they do not hope to gain asylum there. Europe has not only alienated Macedonia, but also Greece. A reversal of Macedonia’s strict border policy can benefit both countries. If its goal is EU and NATO membership, the Macedonian leadership can leverage the threat of severely weaker border controls on Europe. Both Greece and the rest of the EU are at a precipice with their respective migrant situations. The connecting thread between them is Macedonia. The small landlocked country holds tremendous geopolitical value, and it is not using it to its advantage. Macedonia must now raise the stakes. By asserting itself and not being taken for granted, it can gain a tremendous advantage and show that Europe’s interest must work in tandem with Macedonia’s.
The politics have become messy, and Macedonia must play accordingly if it wants to gain its own voice. Macedonia must now force Europe to realize that it will not accept responsibility for the EU’s inane mismanagement of the crisis.