There's not a lot of good news about in Europe today. Brexit here, Yellow Vests in France, turmoil in Italy, Orbán misbehaving in Hungary, Poland in the human rights dock – all seems bleak on our continent. But suddenly there is a glimmer of light in the deep south-east. An old nation with a new name is about to join NATO and 27 years of disagreement in a troubled region has been resolved.
North Macedonia is the new name for what was known clumsily as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and last week it signed the accession protocols for NATO membership. This ended a painful stand-off between Greece and its neighbour, which has prevented North Macedonia from taking its rightful place in the European mainstream. But it was not easy, and here is where there is real good news.
As North Macedonia's foreign minister Dimitrov said: 'This was not inevitable…or even likely'. It took remarkable political leadership and true courage on the part of two politicians – Prime Minister Tsipris of Greece and Prime Minister Zaev of Macedonia – to make 'the impossible do-able'. Facing down vehement and sometimes violent nationalist opposition, the two leaders risked everything to make the region more stable.
In 2001, before the events of 9/11 blew all other news away, the headlines were dominated by the insurgency and crisis in Macedonia. Albanian dissidents had attacked police officers and Macedonian forces had over-reacted. As provocation was followed by reaction, the country was on the brink of another Balkan blood bath.
Enter the EU and NATO with the rotating chairman-in-office of the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Three of us, Javier Solana, myself and Romanian foreign minister, Mircea Geoana, shuttled back and forth to Skopje to dampen down the flames and eventually negotiate, with difficulty, a peace treaty. That treaty both stopped the violence and rebalanced the constitution which had festered the original grievance. Messy, prolonged, and difficult talks had prevented another civil war – all aided by a brave Methodist preacher president, Boris Trajkovski, who was to tragically die in a plane crash not long afterwards.
The small nation of Macedonia was engraved on me. As the crisis unfolded, it dominated my life. Conscious of the history of neighbouring Kosovo and before it of the horrors of Bosnia, we had to control the crisis and find a solution. Shuttle diplomacy, weary hours of negotiation and phone-calling, appeals to reason where there was only emotion – it took every reserve of skill and patience by Javier Solana, myself and the courageous, beleaguered president to get a grip.
We spent hours and days balancing every twist and turn of events. On a brief holiday to Islay during that summer, I had to brief the president and encourage the foreign minister, whilst lying prone on the Machrie Golf Course trying to get away from the wind and get a signal. Each fairway has a Macedonian memory for me. To break the impass and stop the shooting, the insurgents had to hand over their weapons – and they would only do it to NATO. A multinational force was assembled in five days, and led by a British general, they received a mountain of guns – and the tank they had stolen from the Macedonian Army.
The headlines did not give a sense of optimism. Across the front page of the Times was columnist Simon Jenkins' quote 'Robertson will not be satisfied until the Balkans are aflame from the Adriatic to Istanbul'. Wrong again, Sir Simon, and we accomplished the disarmament mission in the promised time scale.
Eventually and painstakingly there was a peace agreement, the 'Ohrid Treaty'. It rebalanced the constitution between the various ethnic interests and we had a lasting deal. But then came 9/11 and the fickle media spotlight turned away from the newly peaceful part of the Balkans. In spite of the good news, the name spat with Greece was to still keep Macedonia away from its rightful place in the evolving European unification.
It took 16 years from that crisis to the election of Zoran Zaev as prime minister of his country. He was determined to solve the lingering dispute – and he had a willing partner in the former rebel prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras. Against the odds and with nationalists in both countries orchestrating opposition to any compromise, the Prespa Treaty was signed. And North Macedonia was born.
The battle was not over. Zaev had to have a referendum and get more than 50% of the population to vote in it. I assembled a team of people with a background in the region and we were back in campaigning mode, this time saying Yes to the name change. The vote was 94% to 6% in favour, but due to the opposition irresponsibly calling a boycott, the turnout fell short of 50%. Zaev alone did not have the MPs to overcome the blockage. However, enough patriotic opposition MPs defied their own party instruction and parliament passed the new name.
In Greece, Tsipras faced formidable opposition from the northern Greek province of Macedonia. Violent nationalist demonstrations were called in Thessaloniki and in Athens to stop the deal. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators attacked the parliament on two occasions, but Tsipras and his colleagues stood firm. It was an act of profound political courage – to do the right thing for stability in the whole region.
I watched emotionally last week as the 29 members of NATO signed the membership protocol to make North Macedonia the 30th member state in the alliance. My heart sang as this small Balkan country with such a complicated background had made it to one of the world's most important top tables. South-east Europe saw something inspiring and uplifting amid other grim news: two leaders putting country before party, taking on irrational and heated nationalisms, and risking their own political futures to protect future generations. It was a remarkable example to a troubled world.
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen has been secretary general of NATO, UK defence secretary and shadow secretary of state for Scotland