On November 17, Bulgaria vetoed the formal launch of EU accession talks with North Macedonia, the last of a series of blockades experienced over the years by the Balkan country, a NATO member since March.
The long-lasting name dispute with Greece ended since Skopje’s 2018 accession to NATO and its bid to join the EU. Eventually, the Prespa Agreement, signed two years ago, paved the way for closing the controversy. The former Yugoslav nation changed its name to North Macedonia, Greece withdrew its veto and accession talks, which the EU Commission had recommended since 2009, could start.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron argued in October 2019 that any further EU enlargement must be based on a more effective mechanism for assessing the respect of the rule of law. Such posture stemmed both from the traditional French cautious approach to the enlargement (driven by voters’ scepticism for newcomers) and the concern for how Hungary and Poland, once considered the champions of Europeanization, are departing from the EU’s democratic principles. To Macron, any country wishing to join the EU must develop robust democratic practices before accession, in order to avoid authoritarian twists once in the bloc. The EU Commission revisited the enlargement strategy taking into account Macron’s request; thus, the EU Council gave the green light to the opening of accession talks for North Macedonia.
Now Bulgaria hinders Skopje’s path to the EU. Its veto comes as no a surprise. The Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, had already warned he could trigger it because of unsolved cultural heritage and historical controversies between the two countries. Sofia demands that Skopje eliminates negative views on Bulgaria in textbooks (mainly stemming from Sofia’s occupation of the current territory of North Macedonia during the Second World War), as well as references to the “Macedonian language” in official documents. “Official language of North Macedonia” is the form suggested by the Bulgarian Government, that claims that the Macedonian language derives from Bulgarian. Most of North Macedonians reject the neighbour’s claims.
Although the Macedonian issue is sensitive for Bulgaria, Borisov’s move is mainly driven by domestic political calculations. Recently, mass protests have been staged in Sofia against the Government, blamed for corruption and cronyism. Escalating the cultural clash with North Macedonia gives Borisov a leverage to regain voters’ trust ahead of parliamentary elections in spring 2021. Recent public opinion polls indicate that most citizens approve the decision to veto EU accession talks for North Macedonia.
In Skopje, the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has adopted a conciliatory tone. He recently gave an interview to the Bulgarian news agency BGNES, suggesting that today it is unfair to insist so much on Bulgarian Fascism during the Second World War, a view largely inherited from Yugoslav times. “The new generations don’t know the entirety of this reality that must unite us,” Zaev pointed out, adding that his government had removed some plaques on historical wartime monuments that contained the words “Bulgarian Fascist occupation,” Balkan Insight reported. For his remarks, Zaev was strongly criticized by the nationalist opposition, as well as from members of his Social-Democratic Party and some historians.
Observers think that the diplomatic and cultural spat between Sofia and Skopje could be fixed during the current German Presidency of the European Union, lasting until December 2020. Berlin’s leadership on the EU is a very good opportunity, considering how German diplomacy has contributed to the positive end of the name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, as well as to giving a refreshed impetus to Europe’s commitment to the stability of the Western Balkans in the last years.
For sure, the bitter and paradoxical truth of this story is that the North Macedonian government, despite it proven commitment to keep the European perspective alive at all costs, finds a new undesired hurdle on the path to the EU: a blow to the credibility of the enlargement process.
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Journalist and analyst, he covers the Balkans for a wide range of media networks. He worked as electoral observer for the OSCE/ODIHR in Albania, Macedonia, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.