Could Bulgaria block the EU path of N. Macedonia over common history interpretation?

Boyko Borissov, Zoran Zaev during signing of the Good Neighbourly Agreement in 2017; Photo: Tanjug / Foto MIA

SKOPJE / SOFIA – In March, North Macedonia celebrated the green light for opening the accession negotiation with the EU. However, after the signing of the Prespa agreement with Greece in 2018, ending an almost three decade-long dispute over the use of the term Macedonia, which was a condition given by Greece in order not to block its attempts to join the EU and NATO, the country might be facing another problem with a neighbour, this time Bulgaria.

Namely, over the past weeks, the concerns have been raised that Bulgaria could veto the start of Skopje’s accession talks with the EU due to a lack of progress in the work of a bilateral committee made up of historians, who are in charge of determining the common history of the two countries.

The bilateral commission was set up three years ago when the two countries signed a friendship treaty in an attempt to try and overcome long standing disputes they have over the shared parts of their histories. Nevertheless, the commission has not been operating since December 2019.

“If the mixed history commission does recommence its work by June and the authorities in Skopje continue to falsify history, Bulgaria will not agree to start pre-accession talks with North Macedonia,” said Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovachev, a member of Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov’s GERB party in an interview for Euroactiv.

When the Council of Ministers of the European Union unanimously confirmed General Affairs Council’s decision from March 24 to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania on April 26, it also included in its summary a separate statement submitted by the Bulgarian delegation which, among other things, insisted on scrapping references to the Macedonian language and to the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.

Among the demands, Bulgaria reiterated that North Macedonia must drop its claims that there is a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and insisted that the EU does not use the term “Macedonian language” during talks but instead “the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia.”

Even though Bulgaria was the first state to recognize Macedonia’s independence after the fall of Yugoslavia, the country has never accepted the existence of a separate Macedonian ethnicity, claiming that ethnic Macedonians are a subgroup of Bulgarians and that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian.

However, Foreign Affairs Ministry of North Macedonia condemned the Bulgarian statement.

“The statement, submitted in the summary after the adoption of the conclusions [endorsing the start of accession talks], is a strictly one-sided interpretative statement, which cannot exclude or change the legal effect of the decision for the start of negotiations, nor the meaning and the scope of the conclusions,” it said, Balkan Insight reports.

Authorities in Skopje added that they hope that, during the talks, Bulgaria and North Macedonia will be able to settle their open issues through “active cooperation and good will”.

Skopje and some EU officials have meanwhile said they expect the negotiating framework with the EU to be finished during May, allowing formal talks to start possibly in June.

Bojan Marichikj, EU negotiator of North Macedonia, told MIA that the Council’s conclusion, which is available to the public, does not list any preconditions for starting talks. He underlined that Bulgarian position, annexed to the Council’s conclusion, is a unanimous statement which carries no legal weight and doesn’t impact EU’s decision to start talks.

„This does not mean that we can ignore the need to build permanent friendships with Bulgaria and other neighbours, but it also does not mean that negotiations will halt before they have even started. Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovatchev said on Saturday that these issues will have to be discusses and resolved by the time we join EU. The accession process is lengthy and will allow us to find common ground on issues through mechanisms stablished by the friendship agreement,“ Marichikj said.

The document in question, drafted by the Bulgarian Parliament in October 2019, was published by the Austrian Parliament.

The EU decided to clarify certain misconceptions regarding the document in late April. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Josep Borrell’s spokesperson Peter Stano described for MIA the EU’s decision-making process.

„The European Council unanimously approved the decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia. EU’s position is clearly outlined in the Council’s conclusions. The unilateral opinions of member states have no impact on these conclusions,” Stano said.

EU member states have the right to voice their dissatisfaction regarding a certain decision in the form of an annex, which carries no legal weight, and in this case does not change in any way EU’s decision to start accession talks with North Macedonia, MIA reports.

The President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski reiterated this saying that he does not expect the issue to impede the country in joining the European Union.

“I do not expect such issues to lead to the suspension of EU membership negotiations. Let me remind you that this document is a position of a member state, not an official position or criterion set by the European Union. We have recently received an unconditional decision to start negotiations and the European institutions are already working on the preparation of the negotiating framework, in accordance with the conclusions and the adopted new methodology. We can expect the issues of good neighbourly policy to be present in the negotiating framework,” he says.

However, Pendarovski underlined that the country does not need the EU if the price of joining the Union is “to accept that we are not Macedonians” and to say that “the language we speak is not Macedonian”.