17th Apr 2021


'Cultural Vetoes' - a new threat to EU accession

  • Statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje. Cultural disagreements are deep-rooted, and require just as much, if not more, effort to resolve as territorial and other political disputes (Photo: Juan Antonio F. Segal)

South-eastern European politics has long been plagued by vetoes and threats of vetoes.

North Macedonia's progress towards Nato and EU membership was held up by Greece over its name from 1991 to 2019.

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In 2009, Slovenia blocked Croatia's negotiations with the EU over the demarcation of a maritime border in Piran Bay.

In April 2016, Croatia blocked neighbouring Serbia's bid on the basis of concerns over the treatment of the Croatian minority in Serbia, Serbian cooperation with the UN war crimes court in The Hague and the jurisdiction of Serbian courts over war crimes committed in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

These vetoes often reflect the poor relations between Balkan countries.

One of the latest veto threats however, that of Bulgaria towards North Macedonia's EU membership, is not based on international political considerations, but rather on culture.

Such a veto highlights that neighbourly relations could be difficult if culture is not granted the same importance as other issues, like territorial irredentism, that are traditionally seen as a more immediate threat to peace in the region.

The current Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia's EU accession process partly focuses on 19th century rebels who fought Ottoman rule in the area then known as Macedonia, which included North Macedonia and parts of modern Bulgaria and Greece.

Bulgarian historians have long argued that these rebels were Bulgarian in ethnicity and language, while for North Macedonia they are the earliest articulators of modern Macedonian identity.

The line between Bulgarian and Macedonian identity was certainly blurry in the 19th century.

The idea of coming up with a single answer as to whether they were Bulgarian or Macedonian at a time when Bulgaria was a very young state and Macedonia had never been an independent country is extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, this dilemma has intruded onto modern political considerations by causing a a potential Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia's EU membership.

Similar controversies surround the issue of language, where Bulgaria opposes references to "Macedonian language" during EU negotiations.

Stumbling block

Therefore, despite the overall good relations between Sofia and Skopje, historical narratives have become a stumbling block to the major strategic issue of North Macedonia's accession to the EU.

This is largely due to domestic Bulgarian issues, with the current government seeking to shore up support among nationalist voters amid large anti-corruption protests and an upcoming general election, schedule for April 2021.

Bulgaria's use of the veto reflects that while vital issues of territorial contestations between the two sides have been resolved, deep historical and cultural disagreements were never sufficiently dealt with.

The rather technical approach that the EU adopts in dealing with many countries of the region often neglects such battles over culture.

For example, since 2013, the EU has facilitated a dialogue between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo.

The EU's strategy has been to take a technical approach, focused on securing agreements on technical issues like mutual recognition of diplomas and licence plates. However such a technical approach neglects the importance of cultural matters for the relations between the two sides.

In 2016, the dialogue nearly collapsed when Kosovo applied for UNESCO membership, which Serbia lobbied against. This was part of Serbia's diplomatic policy of denying Kosovo's statehood, which also includes trying to persuade individual countries to rescind their recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Furthermore, Serbia argued that there was a lack of protection for Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo.

A social media campaign entitled "No Kosovo UNESCO" was launched by students of the University of Pristina, in Mitrovica in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo.

It relied heavily on images and videos of the anti-Serb riots of 2004 to push the message that the Kosovar government could not be trusted to protect Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo. Serbia was successful and Kosovo's membership bid was rejected.

At a deeper level, Serbia's desire to retain to Kosovo is heavily influenced by a historical narrative that regards Kosovo as Serbia's holy land.

The Battle of Kosovo, which is regarded in this narrative as the great defeat to the Ottomans that ushered in Islamic over Serbia, plays a large role in defining Kosovo as lost Serbian land.

This narrative was used by Slobodan Milosevic in 1990s to raise Serbian nationalism to a fever pitch and led to atrocities across the former Yugoslavia, with Kosovo's conflict reaching a head with armed conflict in 1999.

This, much like the recent Bulgarian veto to North Macedonia's EU aspirations, demonstrates that cultural disagreements are deep-rooted, and require just as much, if not more, effort to resolve as territorial and other political disputes.

Until the EU recognises this, disagreements over culture will continue to undermine regional relations and European integration.

Author bio

Luke Bacigalupo is an independent researcher focussed on the history and politics of the Balkans. George Kyris is lecturer in politics at the University of Birmingham and author, among other publications, of Statehood Conflicts: The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies. This article has been prepared as part of wider research and advocacy efforts supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of the project "Building knowledge about Kosovo".


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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