Whenever I meet my foreign friends and they ask me what is new in Macedonia, the usual response goes along the lines of ‘same old, same old.’ However, this time around it is quite different. On September 30, Macedonians will choose whether to change the official name, Republic of Macedonia, recognized by more than 130 countries in the UN, to Republic of North Macedonia, thus resolving the long lasting ‘name dispute’ with our southern neighbor Greece, with the sole purpose of opening the doors for NATO and EU ascension.
The electorate is clearly divided on the issue, while the official position of the biggest opposition party is that ‘everyone should act according to their own convictions’ (at the same time, however, they are pro-EU and pro-NATO, but say that the agreement between Greece and Macedonia is harmful to the national interest). It is an open season for convincing voters.
This political climate created the perfect opportunity for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikola Dimitrov, who while addressing the European Parliament on his recent visit, said: ‘In order to keep our young generation home, we have to bring Europe to … our country.’ This marks a clear resemblance to 2016 when protesters, with their symbolic gesture of showcasing shoes in front of the government, asked the officials ‘how many shoes were left unworn,’ due to the massive emigration in recent years. Estimates, though varied, say that nearly 600,000 people have left the country in the last two decades.
These early signs show, however, that if Macedonia were to join the EU tomorrow, contrary to what Dimitrov says, swath of people would leave for Europe for a better life. The best example for this is Bulgaria of course, a relatively low income country, similar in many ways to Macedonia, which had its population decline continue even after joining the EU.
What we can expect to happen is something similar to the Swedish experience: back in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Sweden was poor, the borders were opened. In less than a hundred years more than 1.3 million Swedes left the country (around a third of the population), with only 200,000 to came back.
People already want to leave Macedonia, as is also shown by reports saying that 100,000 to 150,000 Macedonians have obtained a Schengen passport to be able to work in the EU. We can only speculate how many would leave the country should they not have to go through all the loops as previously.
There are plenty of things one could do to make particular country a richer and better place to live. But at the end of the day, what’s so problematic about people leaving their homelands in their pursuit of happiness? And it is here where the Macedonia joining the EU might be of benefit at least in a particular area: it would enable the freedom to move freely across borders so that all Macedonians can finally pursue their happiness – regardless where they want to do that.