North Macedonia's prime minister on Saturday proposed a snap election after the EU blocked the start of membership talks, which had been the key policy goal of his administration.
After hours of heated wrangling, European Union leaders on Friday could not agree on opening Skopje's accession negotiations, chiefly because of opposition from France.
The issue is now on hold until next spring.
The move triggered a wave of anger and disappointment, not just in North Macedonia and Albania -- whose bid was also put on hold -- but among EU officials and leaders who had lobbied hard to open the talks.
‘We are victims of the EU's historic mistake,’ Zoran Zaev said in a televised address, echoing the words of European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker a day earlier, who appeared deeply apologetic for the decision.
‘This is what I'm proposing: organising quick snap elections where you, citizens, will decide the road we are going to take,’ Zaev said, adding that he would meet with the president and other political leaders on Sunday to discuss the next steps.
‘I have no date, all options are open, we will agree on that all together,’ he added.
- 'Give me a mandate' -
In his address, Zaev said he shared the ‘anger and disappointment’ of the people.
But he asked them to give him another chance to keep fighting for the membership bid.
‘I love my country, so I am asking people to give me a mandate to continue along this path.’
‘We seek to be in the EU not in order to be in Europe, because we are already a part of the continent, but for the values. We should not be discouraged,’ he added.
A Social Democrat, Zaev came to power in 2017, ousting the right-wing party of former strongman Nikola Gruevski who had been in power for a decade.
Since then, his government has poured all of its political capital into putting North Macedonia on a path to EU membership.
That included embarking on a complicated and politically risky effort to change his country's name -- which was previously Macedonia -- to resolve a long-running row with Greece which was seen as the major stumbling block for any future EU integration.
Brussels had pushed hard for the name change and promised the Balkan state would be rewarded.
While the name-change allowed North Macedonia to get an invitation to join NATO, the larger goal of starting EU talks keeps sliding towards the horizon.
Apart from France, all the other EU states accepted that North Macedonia had made enough progress on reforms to start the negotiations, which can stretch on for years.
But French President Emmanuel Macron refused to budge from his position that the entire accession process must first be reformed before opening the door to new members.
‘This is just not fair, what France did, what the EU did,’ said Vladimir Kostovski, a 28-year-old in Skopje.
Velko Velinov, a 29-year-old legal assistant, shared the frustration.
‘They made us change our name for zero, for nothing. Zaev did that and now he is gonna lose elections,’ he told AFP.
All of the Western Balkan countries aspire to someday join the European Union, but progress has been slow and is increasingly threatened by the waning appetite for enlargement among some member states.
The EU's failure to follow through for North Macedonia is a ‘disastrous’ blow to the bloc's credibility in the region, said James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert at the London School of Economics.