Renewed calls for a second Brexit vote in the United Kingdom highlight the fragility attached to national plebiscites when the will of the majority of voters doesn’t come to pass as expeditiously, or smoothly, as first imagined.

Drilling down into the detail of leaving the European Union(EU) has led many voters to question their own motives for opting to leave, although those fully versed in the very reasons that precipitated 52% of turnout to choose to sever links with Brussels remain steadfast in their convictions, determined that the best possible deal for the United Kingdom will take as long as is necessary to be hammered out. Two strands of those wanting referendum(2.0) have though emerged: those on both sides of the argument dismayed at the length of time being taken to reach consensus on what is in effect a severance package/golden goodbye, being joined by those vehemently opposed from the outset to leaving the EU – seeing further traction to their stance with each day of inertia that passes.

I believe though that the prevailing opinion in the country just about holds fast that the will of the people should be respected, and that referenda cannot keep being held until those most vocal get the result they desire. In the unlikely event a second vote was held overturning the 2016 result, the country could see a perpetual call for further ballots in a interminable cycle of one side or the other seeking satisfaction, without ever reaching national consensus. Although the original result carried a clear majority in favour of leaving the EU, the figures were insufficient even two years ago to give Theresa May much in the way of political wriggle room.

Although in many ways diametrically opposed to the UK vote for independence from the EU, Macedonia’s recent referendum sought to in effect free itself from being cast adrift from NATO and the EU by Greece’s suffocating stance towards the former Yugoslav republic, threatening to isolate Skopje and potentially drive it into Russia’s arms. Whilst in excess of 90% of those who voted chose to back a name change to North Macedonia, insufficient turnout below the 50% mandatory threshold failed to carry a result of a referendum couched in greater significance than simply endorsing how the country will in future be known to the outside world.

Since seceding in the early 90’s from the crumbling Yugoslav federation Macedonia has had to endure continued attacks on its identity from neighbouring Greece, whose specious concerns entirely lacking in substance include alleged territorial ambiguity between the country of Macedonia, and the northernmost Hellenic province of the same name. Since independence Macedonia have never laid claim to land outside of its sovereign borders, but Greece, seemingly concerned more by the relatively trivial than the exceptionally serious financial straits that threatened to remove it from the Eurozone, persevered by continually blocking Macedonia’s ambitions to seek membership of the EU and NATO. Only a ‘breakthrough’ earlier this year entirely on Athens’ terms seemed to suggest the beginning of the end to the impasse, paving the way for the historic name change referendum.

What was at stake merited two separate questions on the ballot paper, even arguably two different referenda altogether. Linking the agreement, or otherwise, of Macedonia changing its name from FYROM(Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) to North Macedonia was loaded with the endorsement of joining the EU, and NATO. There was therefore no option to agree to the latter, which almost goes without saying, without accepting Greece’s hysterical desire to change the country’s appellation to something that sounds more akin to a territory within a country, rather than that of a sovereign state.

Recent developments have undermined the referendum’s integrity, portraying it as little more than a tick box exercise where little attention is paid to the result should it differ from an outcome desired by the incumbent administration. Similar to consultation exercises undertaken by companies seeking to lay off staff or close bank branches, the public’s opinion is courted but rarely, if ever, taken into consideration at the final analysis.

Despite turnout in Macedonia failing to reach a level where the will of the voting population can accurately be evinced, two thirds of its parliament, ironically the mandatory figure needed, have rejected the democratic process by ratifying the process to formally change the country’s name, thereby acquiescing to Greece’s coercive, bully boy tactics. The peculiarity of a situation predicated on differentiating a Greek province from a republic of the former Yugoslavia has stirred up tension in Greece with those now concerned that Macedonia(the country) should no longer have ANY reference to the name they only associate with the northern reaches of its territory, loading an already byzantine riddle with further confusion and no little irony. What then would those who object to any mention or use of the name Macedonia outside of Greece expect FYROM to eventually be known as?

Far from just seeking to bolster their ranks both the EU and NATO should, but are not, be concerned by the stipulations imposed by one, more powerful state upon a weaker, younger nation for both to get to where each wants to be. Instead, greater scrutiny should be given to how Greece has been allowed to stand for so long in Macedonia’s way over a situation that does not amount to a territorial dispute or illegal occupation of the land of another. For Macedonia to be considered a suitable candidate for the EU and NATO it should, for example be judged against accession principles stated in the Copenhagen Criteria, and not against an argument not of its own making.

The process to change Macedonia’s name has been activated, although it is far from a done deal. Many questions have though been raised prior, during, and after the referendum that do few favours to the surprising amount of protagonists jostling for position:

  • To what extent did Russia’s interest in the referendum, fearing greater NATO and EU dominance in Europe’s Slavic nations and closer to its doorstep, influence the outcome?
  • Was the referendum merely used as a sop to a supposed democratic process to which little credence would be given to the outcome if it went the ‘wrong way’?
  • Why do the EU and NATO find it acceptable for a country to on one hand be treated like a naughty child for not bowing to Greece’s disproportionate demands, but allow it to be considered for membership if it does as it is expected?
  • Have Macedonian opposition politicians facing criminal charges of historic corruption been promised immunity from prosecution if they, as has been suggested, assist with the government’s requirement for a two-thirds majority to vote through the name change?
  • Is the adherence to principles laid out in, for example within the Copenhagen Criteria, now of secondary importance to instead being coerced to end an argument, one not of its own making, with a neighbouring country? Why is one country allowed to bully another in this manner but still seen as the aggrieved party, not the aggressor?
  • It what could be a damaging precedent, can the results from future referenda in the region ever be considered to be binding?
  • Will the whole name change saga become counterproductive, stirring up hitherto dormant and nonexistent anti-Macedonia sentiment not previously as big a problem as it now threatens to be?

Welcoming a new member into the fold is all well and good, but not with the attitude of it now ‘seeing sense’ from a previous, valid standpoint. If Macedonia chooses to lean towards the West is should be judged on its own merits for accession, not on being browbeaten into appeasing all parties when it itself is the innocent victim. Far from uniting the country and healing the apparent rift with Greece, the country now looks to be on a precipice both it and the region could well do without.

Source material and further information:

Southeast Europe News: https://seenews.com/news/macedonias-parl-endorses-name-change-deal-with-greece-630675

London School of Economics blog: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2018/10/22/symbolic-identities-understanding-the-macedonia-name-dispute-and-its-implications-for-eu-politics/

BBC: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45922955