At the General Affairs Council meeting earlier this week, Bulgaria vetoed the decision to open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia. The decision also indirectly affects Albania, another Western Balkan candidate. The German Presidency of the Council of the EU had hoped after many hurdles, to be able to have the issue resolved by the end of 2020 and to clear the way for accession for both countries. Bulgaria’s stance has now thrown this aspiration off course.
In October 2019, the Bulgarian Parliament unanimously adopted a declaration warning North Macedonia that Bulgaria would not tolerate what it saw as the distortion of historical events, documents and artefacts, as well as the role and views of personalities from Bulgarian history. A bilateral historic committee was set up under the terms of the 2017 Friendship Treaty and Good Neighbourliness to resolve issues regarding language and the interpretation of common history but both sides have accused the other of preventing progress.
In a document circulated by the Bulgarian delegation in recent weeks, it said Sofia cannot “accept that the still ongoing nation-building process in the Republic of North Macedonia be conducted through the revision of our common history, the denial of our common ethnic and linguistic roots or the unfounded claims for the existence of a ‘Macedonian minority’ in Bulgaria.”
The framework for negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia had been put forward by the European Commission last summer. Once the Member States had backed the framework, the Germany Presidency was to present the “Agreed General EU Position” of the two countries which would mark the formal start of accession negotiations. Arriving at this point was not easy to begin with, given North Macedonia was forced to change its name last year after a 30 year dispute on the matter with Greece.
The Bulgarian delegation has laid out three conditions for overcoming the impasse. Bulgaria does not accept the mention of ‘Macedonian languages’ in the negotiating framework but would accept the formulation “the official language of the Republic of Northern Macedonia”. While conceding that it has been modified slightly under the Serb influence in Yugoslavia after 1947, Sofia considers the language of North Macedonia to be a dialect of Bulgarian. Bilateral agreements between the two countries to date have been signed with the mention that they have been written in the official languages of both countries and Bulgaria wants the same arrangement to apply in any EU level negotiations.
Bulgaria has also called for a roadmap for the implementation of the aforementioned 2017 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness to be included in the negotiating framework. This position has been opposed by EU Member States who believe that bilateral disputes between Bulgaria and North Macedonia are not a part of the criteria for EU membership.
Bulgaria considers the Slavic population of the Republic of North Macedonia to be Bulgarians who have been separated by history, rejecting the concept of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Accordingly, Bulgaria has lastly called for explicit text in the framework stipulating that claims for a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria will not be supported in any way.
Following news of Bulgaria’s veto, the North Macedonian government said in a statement that “Macedonian identity and language are non-negotiable” and that the result was “a failure of EU enlargement policy, a bad message for the entire region and a defeat of the fundamental European values and principles”. North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister insisted “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 acquisition of European standards.”
Nikola Dimitrov, North Macedonia’s deputy prime minister for European integration, said his country is committed to implementing the friendship agreement with Sofia. He noted Bulgaria had played a positive role in putting EU enlargement back on the bloc’s agenda but said that success would be at risk if a solution is not found to the impasse. “It is simply not right for the Macedonian language to be an obstacle to our European future if the EU is a community of values that celebrates diversity” he continued.
The next General Affairs Council – the last that will be held under German leadership – will take place on the 8th December. It is unlikely that the incoming Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU will attach the same level of commitment to the accession talks of these two states or to the question of enlargement more generally.