Perspectives | EU

The High Cost of EU Membership for North Macedonia

By - 23.06.2021

After Macedonian concessions to Greece, Bulgaria too demands its pound of flesh.

Macedonians’ long-delayed entry to the European Union (EU) is a never-ending saga, one whose conclusion seems to grow more distant as time goes on.

North Macedonia obtained candidate status for EU accession way back in 2005, but up to this day, the largely political problems of its neighbors have blocked the path forward. It all started from the dispute with Greece over the country’s name, which was resolved by signing the Prespa Agreement in June 2018, and continues with the current dispute with Bulgaria revolving around historical claims, the Macedonian language and allegations of North Macedonia’s discrimination against Bulgarian citizens.

Only a few months prior to the April 2021 Bulgarian elections, authorities decided to block the start of Macedonian negotiations for EU accession. To achieve this goal, diplomatic offensives and lobbying spread out all over the place.

When France blocked North Macedonia’s EU path in the previous negotiations, Macedonian authorities learned that simply fulfilling their obligations would not be enough, so they placed their hopes in German support. This hasn’t yet paid off.

No changes after elections

The Macedonian public was closely monitoring the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, hoping for a government comprised of more reasonable politicians who might eventually lift the veto. Nevertheless, this didn’t happen and Macedonians are again at the mercy of Bulgaria.

Once again, the center-right party GERB won the election. However, this time they received only 24.2% of the vote, meaning that they had a difficult time forming a coalition government. Compromise was reached which brought about a new technical government that would take over power until the next elections.

The Macedonian question was only a ploy for securing political points ahead of the election and not a real problem of the citizens of Bulgaria.

One noteworthy development is that the nationalist party VMRO won’t be going back to the Bulgarian parliament; this was the party that predominantly generated nationalist and anti-Macedonian rhetoric. Still, this doesn’t mean that policies toward North Macedonia will change.

On the other hand, by analyzing the election campaign and post-election math, it’s apparent that the so-called Macedonian question was only a ploy for securing political points ahead of the election and not a real problem of the citizens of Bulgaria.

How could it possibly constitute an issue when Bulgaria is the country with the highest rates of corruption and emigration among all EU member states? Bulgarian citizens have more significant problems in their lives than worrying about whether the Macedonian language descends from Bulgarian or whether the revolutionary Goce Delčev was a Macedonian or a Bulgarian. Yet that is what politicians want to talk about.

Portugal’s unenviable situation

Portugal, which is now presiding over the EU, has inherited the issue of the veto on future negotiations. Macedonians had high hopes that something would change after the EU Summit on June 22, but the veto remained in place.

Before the summit, Portugal actually gave some proposals, though they were flatly rejected by Bulgaria. The basic suggestion was to move Bulgaria’s demands from the negotiation framework and instead put them as part of the Stabilization and Association Process.

Bulgaria rejected the participation of foreign experts in the Commission for History which was established in 2018 through the Agreement of Good Neighborly Cooperation. The commission’s goal is to resolve disagreements related to conflicting historical claims. Bulgaria also demands that the Macedonian language be recognized as having Bulgarian roots, something which is unacceptable for Macedonians, as well as unsubstantiated.

An additional problem lies in the fact that the former Bulgarian government approved a declaration in parliament that includes all their demands for North Macedonia, and which is the basis for the blockage. It’s difficult to imagine that any future government would neglect this declaration in order to unlock negotiations for Macedonian integration into the EU.

As always, internal political interests have priority over good neighborly relations.

The Portuguese suggestion could serve as a tool for negotiation, a set of incremental steps coming out of the Agreement for Good Neighborly Cooperation, which the two states signed in 2017. This process, which would involve input from Macedonian representatives, once again proved to be a stumbling block because Macedonians refuse to place language, nation and history as issues for negotiation. It is precisely these points that are central to Bulgaria’s declaration.

As always, internal political interests have priority over good neighborly relations.

An unexpected event occurred last week when Prime Minister Zoran Zaev visited French President Emmanuel Macron, who supported the start of negotiations and the quest for a solution to the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute. This is a reversal from the French rejection of EU expansion two years ago, a decision which caused shock among the public, as the Macedonian side had fulfilled the greater part of the conditions for entering negotiations for EU membership, and yet these negotiations failed to take place.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has been visiting Sofia lately, where he met former Prime Minister Bojko Borisov, President Rumen Radev, provisional Prime Minister Stefan Janev and Kornelija Ninova, who is president of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a sister party of Zaev’s Social Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the Bulgarian hosts were firm in their positions, especially Ninova, that state interests are above all else and that they won’t back down from their demands.

Former Prime Minister Borisov emphasized the fact that he is no longer in power and that he has no political mandate, noting that the Bulgarian technical government has the right and responsibility to negotiate and make a decision but that it doesn’t want to accept any political accountability.

As part of these visits, the Macedonian side presented the structure of their negotiation guidelines, which the Macedonian public isn’t thoroughly familiar with. According to Bulgarian media, which cite government sources, the Macedonian side has suggested a formulation that Macedonians and Bulgarians speak the same language that is internationally recognized as two separate languages. Prime Minister Zaev stated that if he receives the support of Bulgaria during the summit, he will compromise on disputes that arise from different views of history. 

Before Zaev’s visit to Bulgaria, the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE organized protests in cities across North Macedonia against, as they claim, the selling-out of Macedonian identity in negotiations with Bulgaria. Judging by the fact that the Macedonian public isn’t familiar with the suggestions that Zaev delivered to the Bulgarians, the mistrust is perhaps well-founded.

What can we expect?

Bearing in mind the fact that Bulgaria has long persisted in blocking North Macedonia’s EU accession, it was always unlikely that the June 22 EU summit was going to change anything.

Declarative support is present but real pressure on Bulgaria is lacking. This allows for internal political interests to once again dictate the EU’s enlargement policy. On the other hand, during the 2016 election campaign, Zaev repeatedly said that the name of the country will not change, though with the signing of the Prespa Agreement with Greece, this in fact happened.

Prime Minister Zaev publicly stated a number of times that an alternative to the EU does not exist for North Macedonia.

The Macedonian government’s activities up to this point inspire no hope that, with its strong desire to enter the EU, they can prevent changes to the country’s identity, language and history. If this happens, the entire Macedonian history will be erased, together with the anti-fascist struggle from the Second World War, a time when Macedonia was occupied by a Bulgarian government allied with the fascists.

Prime Minister Zaev publicly stated a number of times that an alternative to the EU does not exist for North Macedonia. But what will this Macedonian state look like if it were to be admitted as a member of the EU without its own identity, language or history? The big question is whether EU membership is worth it in exchange for total self-destruction. 

Feature image: EU office in Macedonia.