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1st Oct 2022

Bulgaria dangles hope on EU enlargement veto

  • Former Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov (Photo: European People's Party)
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Bulgaria has raised hope of an impending breakthrough in the EU's Western Balkans enlargement by endorsing a French blueprint for North Macedonia accession talks.

The ray of sunshine came when Bulgaria's Gerb opposition party, led by former prime minister Boyko Borissov, backed the French conditions on Wednesday (22 June).

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His decision meant MPs in Sofia had a likely majority to vote on opening talks.

The cross-party support came despite the fact Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov was defenestrated in a no-confidence vote the same day in a row on anti-corruption reforms.

If North Macedonia also accepts the French blueprint, the accession talks would mark the EU's first major step forward in the Western Balkans after years of enlargement stagnation — and amid fears of a grim Russian renaissance in the region.

"Russia's unjustified and unprovoked military aggression against Ukraine is having a significant impact on the entire European continent," a French draft for the North Macedonia accession talks, dated 17 June, said.

The EU Commission thanked Borissov for his "historical decision" on Wednesday, while urging him to make the "necessary proposals to parliament today so Europe can move forward".

But if Bulgaria votes 'Yes', then North Macedonian prime minister Dimitar Kovačevski will also have to get the deal through parliament.

And that means it would be premature for French president Emmanuel Macron to celebrate at his Western Balkans summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Bulgaria has been vetoing North Macedonia since 2020 in a toxic dispute on the purportedly Bulgarian origins of North Macedonia's culture and language.

And Kovačevski does not have the two-thirds majority he needs for an affirmative vote, while the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE opposition party has spoken out against Macron's plan.

There must be "clear protection of Macedonian identity" in the EU negotiating framework, Kovačevski said on Wednesday.

"Historical issues cannot be criteria," and Sofia mustn't try to smuggle them into a "bilateral protocol that has not yet been harmonised with Bulgaria", he added.

The French negotiation framework for the accession talks, which was leaked in Balkan media, says: "Macedonia will adopt through an inclusive process an Action Plan dedicated to the protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities".

It also speaks of a "roadmap" and a "unilateral declaration on the Macedonian language" to be issued by North Macedonia.

The Action Plan and roadmap, which are still being finalised between Skopje and Sofia, are expected to contain prickly Bulgarian terms.

These include North Macedonia amending the preamble of its constitution to make mention of Bulgarians, Croats, and Montenegrins as national minorities.

"Implementation of this roadmap and Action Plan will be constantly monitored and regularly addressed at the Intergovernmental conferences [IGCs] throughout the process," the French draft proposal said.

And all this meant "the first IGC [opening the accession talks] might just be a photo-op, if Bulgaria was still able to veto every further step in the process [over historical issues]," a European diplomatic source said.

There must be "strong assurances from both Bulgaria and the European Union that Bulgaria will not make new conditional demands" during the talks, Kovačevski said.

Kovačevski as well as the Albanian and Serbian leaders had threatened to boycott Thursday's Western Balkans summit in protest at the stalemate.

Albania's accession talks are linked to North Macedonia's in the intricate EU procedure.

But the mood further improved on Wednesday when they said they would attend the summit after all.

The draft French statement for the first IGC, if it ever goes ahead, said: "This is a historic moment for us all, which marks a milestone in the evolution of our relationship".

"Your country [North Macedonia] is part of European history, heritage and culture, and we look forward to further intensifying our already well-established ties," it said.

Meanwhile, Western Balkan and EU leaders also plan to call "for the acceleration of the EU integration process" in a summit statement in Brussels on Thursday.

They aim to highlight "the urgency of making tangible progress" in "the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo".

But the EU is to give nothing to Bosnia, which, together with Kosovo, don't even have EU accession "candidate" status — the first step in the process, some 19 years after it began.

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