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17th Jan 2022

Germany apologises to Skopje for Bulgaria fiasco

Germany and EU institutions have voiced dismay over Bulgaria's ongoing veto on North Macedonia accession talks.

"It's a single country [Bulgaria], one country only, which wasn't able to agree to the negotiating framework," Germany's minister for EU affairs, Michael Roth, said in Brussels on Tuesday (8 December) after talks with his 26 EU counterparts.

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"I'm sure you can feel my very personal disappointment. Myself, the German foreign minister [Heiko Mass], and the chancellor [Angela Merkel] were very committed to this process," Roth added.

"Negotiations will sometimes hit difficulties. It's not a bed of roses becoming a member of the European Union," the European Commission spokesman, Eric Mamer, said the same day.

"Bulgaria should approve the opening of the intergovernmental conference [IGC] with North Macedonia as soon as possible," a cross-party group of MEPs dealing with the Western Balkans also said in an open letter on Tuesday.

North Macedonia had hoped to start talks this year after the pro-EU government of prime minister Zoran Zaev helped clean up corruption and put an end to the nationalist politics of former leader Nikola Gruevski.

Zaev also signed a "friendship" treaty with Bulgaria in 2017 and changed his country's name to please Greece in 2018.

But Bulgaria says North Macedonia has failed to comply with the 2017 treaty on grounds that its Gruevski-era school textbooks still tell a nationalist version of history, for instance, by laying claim to past Bulgarian heroes.

Bulgaria also says Macedonian should not be a separate EU language, with its own translators and interpreters, because it is a dialect of Bulgarian.

Some diplomats in Brussels have speculated that Sofia's objections are a pre-election stunt that will melt away in the new year.

Roth also pledged that Germany would continue to "push" for the IGC in 2021, even though Portugal takes over the EU presidency on 1 January.

But other EU diplomats believe Bulgaria will keep on fighting for the concessions, which would be political suicide for Zaev if he adopted them, meaning that the veto is here to stay.

That raised the prospect that North Macedonia would begin to regress in its pro-EU reforms as time went by and people's faith in an EU future dimmed.

And the return of Gruevski-ism in Skopje could start a negative domino-effect in the Western Balkans, where Europe was competing with Russia for influence.

'Political mistake'

"We honour that and we recognise that," Germany's Roth said on Tuesday, on Zaev's reforms.

"Anything else [than a swift IGC] would be a very severe political mistake at the expense of stability and security in the Western Balkans, and that ultimately would massively endanger the security of Europe as a whole - and all should be aware of that," Roth said.

"The [European] perspective [of the Western Balkans] remains unchanged and it's very clear and all member states agree to this," Mamer, the EU commission spokesman, also said on Tuesday.

"The current hold-up is jeopardising the [European] Union's credibility in the Western Balkans and reducing the EU's transformative power and impact in the region," the MEPs added.

"The declared commitment of Bulgaria to have a role as a regional leader ... has shifted into its purely national interest against good neighbourly relations and EU values," Katerina Jakimovska, an analyst at the Wilfred Martens Centre for European Studies, a think-tank in Brussels, said.

"Many harsh statements have been made, and apparently there is no goodwill for constructive talks or negotiations now," she added.

Interview

Does North Macedonia really exist?

Its language and history give North Macedonia its identity for president Stevo Pendarovski, but, for Bulgaria, neither of them are real, in a dispute holding up EU enlargement.

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