Tuesday

19th Jan 2021

Bulgaria brings 'historical baggage' to EU table

  • North Macedonia president Stevo Pendarovski (r) with EU enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

It was meant to be a technicality, but it is turning into a new fiasco on EU enlargement and the Western Balkans, dragging in Hitler, Stalin, and Tito.

The 27 EU affairs ministers, meeting by video-link on Tuesday (17 November) and chaired by the German EU presidency, were meant to give the nod to starting accession talks with North Macedonia before Christmas.

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  • Bulgarian prime minister Bojko Borisov has elections in spring (Photo: eu2018bg/Flickr)

It was due after years of delay, because of a Greek veto, which ended in 2018, when Skopje changed its country's name to please Athens.

And it was due after a French veto in 2019, when EU states changed the way they do enlargement to satisfy Paris.

But instead, Tuesday's talks will see a new Bulgarian veto, based on what one senior EU diplomat called "all this historical baggage stuff".

The baggage includes Bulgaria's demands that North Macedonia's history textbooks drop claims to the Macedonian identity of some historical figures and to the non-Bulgarian origins of its language.

Bulgaria also wants books to stop saying it was guilty of fascist occupation of North Macedonia in WW2, even though it was, as one of Hitler's axis states.

And it wants books to say former Yugoslav leader Josip Tito was Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's henchman, even though Tito split with Stalin in 1948 to protect Yugoslav autonomy.

These kind of disagreements were meant to be solved by a joint panel of historians under the terms of a 2017 Sofia-Skopje "friendship" treaty.

But now, Bulgaria wants them to be inscribed in the EU's "negotiating framework" for North Macedonia accession talks.

"The current draft negotiating framework for the Republic of North Macedonia does not reflect our concerns and we can not approve it as it currently stands," the Bulgarian foreign ministry told EUobserver on Monday.

"Our demands are fully in line with the principle of good neighbourly relations and are fully legitimate," it said.

"Now, it is time for the Republic of North Macedonia to demonstrate true political will and embrace European values," it added.

But there is little appetite among Bulgaria's EU peers to change the draft framework text, which had been agreed in March.

"It's about methodology. This [enlargement] is not an instrument for solving bilateral disputes," the senior EU diplomat said.

"This [negotiating framework] needs [EU] unanimity, but also to be agreed by the country that is due to enter the enlargement process," the diplomat noted.

And there is little sympathy in North Macedonia for it either.

"The demands [of Bulgaria] from the past year go beyond the scope of the [2017] agreement, they affect identity issues, which is not acceptable for us," North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski, told EUobserver, also on Monday.

The 2017 agreement was meant to "separate historical from political issues," he added.

"This allows for differences regarding history to be a subject for academic discussion, not a dialogue between countries," he said.

Clock ticking

The debate, whether on EU methodology or Tito, will not take place on Tuesday.

Bulgaria's veto will be a "brief point" on a busy agenda, dealing also with the EU budget, climate change, and terrorism, the EU diplomat predicted.

And Germany, together with the European Commission, will try to mend fences between Sofia and Skopje in other formats.

"This is not the end. Discussions will continue," the Bulgarian foreign ministry said.

But there is "not so much time left" for a breakthrough this year, the EU diplomat said, before Germany, Europe's most influential country, hands the EU presidency baton to Portugal on 1 January.

Pandemic travel restrictions are also making international diplomacy harder.

And in the meantime, anti-EU forces in the Western Balkans, whether they be North Macedonian nationalists, or the Russian propaganda that backs them, can use the Bulgaria fiasco to make headway.

"This is Europe. People [here] believe in European values, support European integration," Pendarovski said.

But "lack of progress in EU integration could have detrimental influence to the reform process and an indirect effect on [belief in] European values," he added.

Borisov's agenda

For their part, some sources in Skopje believe Bulgaria's veto is a populist stunt to help its prime minister, Bojko Borisov, get re-elected in spring.

Some even think it might be linked to Russian influence in Sofia.

"I couldn't comment on whether Bulgaria has some other agenda," Pendarovski told this website.

"But I firmly believe that it's in Bulgaria as well as the EU's interest to solve the open issues soon," he added.

"This would let us focus on people's top priority in the region - stability, better living standards, especially at a time when, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we've seen that solidarity and cooperation [in Europe] have no alternative," he said.

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