4th Oct 2023


North Macedonia's EU accession talks — a 'rotten deal'

  • Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia — which has been an EU accession candidate since 2005. First, Greece, then France, then Bulgaria, thew a spanner in the works (Photo: Mike Norton)
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After a long wait, the beginning for EU accession talks for North Macedonia are tantalising close — yet again.

Several EU and member state officials have been visiting Skopje in recent days suggesting that there is finally way to lift the most recent of the three blockades by EU members that have prevented the country from joining the Union.

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One would think that for a country waiting for 21 years to start accession talks with the EU, the opportunity to finally do it would be cause for all around festivities and national celebration.

Instead, for days now, the very proposal supposed to break the deadlock triggered mass protests against the government stance to accept it, with worrying violent incidents.

North Macedonia signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, before Croatia, back in 2001.

It became an EU candidate country in 2005, a status it has held ever since. Years were lost over the so called name dispute with neighbouring Greece, an EU member state that vetoed progress towards the EU and Nato membership and period of democratic backsliding.

The authoritarian turn came to an end in 2017 and the name issue was resolved in 2018 with the widely-praised Prespa Agreement.

Macedonia became North Macedonia, and Athens accepted the right of the majority population of its neighbour to self-determination: Macedonians who speak the Macedonian language. North Macedonia became the 30th Nato ally and European leaders rushed to Skopje to promise start of the long-awaited accession talks with the EU.

It didn't happen

First, France blocked talks and demanded a change of the enlargement methodology.

Then, after the new approach was adopted, Bulgaria decided to veto its neighbour over issues of identity and history, claiming that the Macedonian language was a dialect of the Bulgarian and that the artificial Macedonian identity was built on an anti-Bulgarian narrative.

In other words, Sofia wants to change and dictate the self-perception of the Macedonians in North Macedonia using its veto power as EU member state.

In North Macedonia, this veto came out of the blue.

While nationalists in Bulgaria made such claims, Bulgaria had been a staunch supporter of North Macedonia EU membership until then and a veto was unthinkable. The friendship treaty between the two countries, signed in 2017 was supposed to address all open questions outside the realm of politics.

Instead, the Bulgarian claims undermined the very reason why Macedonia could agree to become North Macedonia — the Macedonian language and the right to freely express one's identity. The history and language of Macedonians certainly ought not to be up for negotiations with Bulgaria or part of the EU accession process.

Gradually, Sofia's demands expanded including enlisting ethnic Bulgarians in the constitution of their neighbour and non-substantiated claims of systemic discrimination against Bulgarians.

These claims were also based on dubious grounds, not backed up by any evidence from the many reports of the Advisory Committee of the Council of Europe, overseeing the implementation of minority rights. Among other member state governments, the Bulgarian claims are widely considered to be arbitrary and preposterous.

Successive EU presidencies — Germany, Portugal and Slovenia — invested immense efforts to find a way out but Sofia resisted, mostly due unstable governments and hardening domestic political frontlines.

In the last days of the French EU Presidency, Paris tabled a proposal that was accepted by Bulgaria. However, the package, despite some minor revisions of the initial proposal, has two major flaws:

First, to properly open accession talks, Skopje must first change its constitution to include the Bulgarians (3,504 citizens according to the recent census) in preamble.

The current constitution already mentions four nations besides the Macedonian majority and would have to list several more before it would numerically reach the size of tiny Bulgarian minority. While the government agrees to amend the constitution, it lacks the two third majority in parliament to do this.

The opposition and possibly few smaller political parties now part of the parliamentary majority are against and prospects that the majority will come together look dim.

North Macedonia will get stuck, unable to get to a two-thirds majority. If this happens, it will be easy to shift the blame for the stalemate to Skopje.

Nationalist thugs

However, this will only encourage extreme nationalists, including the thugs who stormed parliament in 2017 and beat up MPs. Worrying violent incidents related to the protests in recent days just show the risks for increased interethnic tensions if a bad proposal fails and citizens feel like they will be stuck once more for the long run.

(The double standards are striking. Bulgaria not only refuses to implement several judgments of the European Court on Human Rights related to the freedom of assembly of Bulgarian citizens who declare to be ethnic Macedonians, but insists that nothing in the accession process can be interpreted as a recognition of the existence of the Macedonian language by Sofia. Essentially, Bulgarians should be in the constitution of North Macedonia next to the Macedonian people that official Sofia doesn't recognise.)

Second, the proposal is importing bilateral issues of history and related issues in a process that should be about democratic and economic reforms.

Even if North Macedonia manages to amend its constitution, its progress towards EU membership will not only be about the rule of law, democracy and other European standards, but the dynamic will depend on whether historians agree with their Bulgarian counterparts.

For the first time in the history of enlargement, the European Commission will report on historical and related issues.

This risks completely sidelining the process of accession and sets a dangerous precedent. By giving in to the most nationalist demands of an individual member state, the proposal and with the EU encourage others do the same.

Considering that there are minorities and bilateral issues between all the Western Balkans aspirants and their EU neighbours, it proposed "solution" does not put pandora back in the box, but instead encourages each of them to put their issues on the agenda and not just hold up enlargement indefinitely, but also make it all about revisionist nationalist bullying by more powerful neighbors against those outside the EU.

It will not just bury the process of enlargement, but it will also seriously hurt the already tattered image of the EU in the region.

Considering the larger geopolitical issues at stake, this seems like a risk the EU should not be willing to take.

While the temptation might be great to push through a bad deal know to bring movement in the already stuck process, the proposal as it stands now is likely to achieve the opposite, more stagnation, more frustration, and even destabilisation.

Author bio

Florian Bieber holds the Jean Monnet Chair on Europeanisation in Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz and coordinates the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

Nikola Dimitrov is the former foreign minister of North Macedonia and a member of BiEPAG.


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


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