European integration Governance and Multilateralism

Bulgaria’s veto on the enlargement process: yet another stop for North Macedonia

On  November 17th Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva rejected talks over North Macedonia’s entry into the European Union due to Bulgarian claims regarding historic and linguistic origins. The veto is yet another blockade for North Macedonia’s accession bid.

After France decided to lift its veto to the start of the accession negotiations and after the painful and contested name change agreed with Greece, membership talks for the Republic of North Macedonia, a country that has undertaken more efforts than any other in recent years to resolve open bilateral issues and pursue democratic reforms, has been once again stopped.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva declared in the last Foreign Affairs Council that her country “doesn’t support this stage of the accession framework with the Republic of North Macedonia”. North Macedonia’s foreign minister Bujar Osmani replied that his country would continue talks with Sofia in order to solve the issue, but that Bulgaria’s behaviour is damaging “itself, the North Macedonia, the enlargement process, and overall the credibility of the European Union […] the accession negotiations should not become a negotiation with Bulgaria. Our progress in EU integration should depend on domestic reforms related to chapters, EU legislation and acquirement of European standards“.

This veto came after a threat made in long advance, since in October 2019 the Bulgarian Parliament adopted a statement warning the Republic of North Macedonia that it would not tolerate the distortion of historical events, documents and Bulgarian heritage personalities. However, it could seem controversial as it was the first country to recognize North Macedonia’s independence when it separated from the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. Likewise, Bulgaria is that same country that has promoted consistent and persistent support for European Union membership of the Western Balkans during its six-month presidency of the European Council in 2018.

Historical and ethnical clash

Lately Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has blamed North Macedonia for not complying with the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness, and Cooperation signed in 2017, eighteen years after the 1999 Declaration for Good Neighbourly Relations.

For those who have thought that Borisov is allegedly using the controversy to revive the ruling coalition as parliamentary elections approach, they are engaged in a superficial reading of the events. Borisov has insisted throughout his term, with a heavy dose of nationalist rhetoric on the theme, that Macedonia’s historical narratives must be modified. The treaty itself envisioned the establishment of a Joint Historical Commission that would clear up their disputes over history, language and identity and sort out problems of interpreting common history. Lately Borisov’s government had raised its tone towards the Republic of North Macedonia, accusing Skopje of not committing to the solution of open issues as declared in the treaty.

Indeed, Sofia is not satisfied with how the treaty is being implemented and, in order to unblock the veto, it demands to include its content within the negotiate, together with two other requests. First, to not use the term “Macedonian language” in the documents (but would accept the formulation “official language of the Republic of North Macedonia”) because Sofia considers the language of its neighbour a dialect of Bulgarian. Second, Sofia wants to make sure that Skopje does not claim its minorities in Bulgaria, and that they will not be supported in any form.

What to expect

Germany had been hoping to overcome the impasse before its presidency at the European Council ends, which is scheduled for the end of 2020. The margins are narrow, but this certainly represents the best window of opportunity to solve the issue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already sent a sharp message, pushing both sides to overcome historical tension in order to speed up the Berlin Process. If no agreement will be reached on time, the fate of the Republic could dangerously slip, driving to further instability in the region. The best-case scenario is that the two prime ministers, North Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev and Borisov, could conclude some sort of deal that would allow to domestically solve the issue by unblocking North Macedonia’s procedures to be part of the European Union.

Without any doubt, this clash between Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia casts a further shadow on the sustainability of the enlargement process and on the achievement of the inclusion of all the Western Balkans in the EU legal and institutional framework. Once again, the enlargement process is hostage of an emotionally charged dispute: it is a fact that many countries in the region have still unsolved bilateral disputes rooted in the still fresh conflicts that dismembered the Yugoslav Federation.

The consequences of this veto will be seen in the medium and long term, but the biggest consequence will be for the European Union itself. This event could represent a prominent case for Member States that could be encouraged to cross vetoes, making  deadlock a concrete and real prospect in the enlargement process. Likewise, this precedent could discourage Western Balkan countries from trying to initiate the accession process. The European Union is based on the recognition of diversity and difference, and to embrace different identities is a crucial premise which allows its members to work together without imposing their views on the historical past or their national identity on each other.

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