Bulgaria and North Macedonia: When there is political will, there is a way, but the dispute remains

Ekaterina Zaharieva; Photo: Buglarian Presidency

SOFIA – The only way forward to resolving the open issues, fostering understanding and durable good neighbourliness lies with the genuine political will, open dialogue and the awareness of the necessity of the common European future, said Bujar Osmani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia on Monday, during the Think Tank and Civil Society Forum of the Berlin Process 2020 in Sofia.

This comes several days after the Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev, stated that Bulgaria imposed the first blockade on European integration of North Macedonia.

“Europe was founded on two principles – respecting diversity and reconciliation and good neighbourly relations, and with the agreements that we have signed and implemented, we have revived the European idea,” stated Osmani.

However, he added that there are still bumps of the road, at the account of accession prospect of some of the countries aspiring to join the EU.

“This represents a burden to the new EU enlargement methodology, sidelining merit and reform-oriented process. Such processes provide fuel to those questioning the legitimacy and credibility of the EU enlargement process,” he emphasised.

Ekaterina Zaharieva, Deputy Prime Minister for Judicial Reform and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria, pointed out that the Western Balkans is in Europe and that it is part of the European family.

However, she noted that Bulgaria is still not able to approve the negotiating framework with North Macedonia, and that does not mean that the process will stop.

“Bulgaria was, is, and will be among the hardest supporter of the Western Balkans integration to the EU. But, those countries should also take their responsibilities,” explained Zaharieva.

She reminded that Bulgaria agreed in March to start negotiating talks and that despite the disputes that Sofia and Skopje have, she is grateful that they did not hinder the initiative.

“I am sure that tomorrow will be a very successful end of our co-chairmanship. I will not agree that the enlargement is dead, and I hope that this will be another brick in the bridge,” said Zaharieva.

Osmani also added that the Berlin Process and the joint chairmanship demonstrate that when there is a political will there is also a way for a “functioning, positive result-oriented environment”, and that the region should capitalise on this experience.

He praised the current model of the joint chairmanship between a candidate country from the region and the neighbouring EU member state, noting that it signifies regional ownership of their regional affairs.

“One of the outstanding achievement of this process is a revised action plan of the common regional market which will enable creating a regional market of 18 million people based on the EU rules and procedures, with an aim of bringing the region closer to the EU single market, as well as to increase its competitiveness and attractiveness to foreign investors,” said Osmani.

He explained that important moment of this action plan is the incorporation of the four freedoms that are part of the so-called “mini Schengen” initiative, which, as he said, creates a bridge and complementarity between the regional initiatives.

Zaharieva also noted that there are two very important and visible achievements of this co-chairmanship.

 “First we expect signing a declaration of the regional market in the Western Balkans, which should prepare the countries for the European Single Market, which is extremely important, especially now, in the COVID-19 era. The second is the declaration on the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans that will reconfirm the commitments of the countries to align themselves with the ambitious action plan envisioned by the European Green Deal. I think those are the most visible actions,” concluded Zaharieva.

The Think Tank and Civil Society Forum is jointly organized by the European Fund for the Balkans, the European Council on Foreign Relations – Sofia office, and the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje. The Forum will precede the Berlin Process 2020 Sofia Summit that is scheduled for Tuesday, 10 November.

The Berlin Process has taken up the EFB initiated Civil Society Forum as part of the process itself. The Think Tank Forum was added last year under the Polish Presidency with the assistance of the Institute for Eastern studies OSW and Institute for Democracy ID. This year, after the Think Tank Forum in Skopje, EFB, ECFR Sofia and ID are reaffirming the importance of both the formats at the event in Sofia. The event aims to shed light on the current priorities of the Berlin Process initiative with a focus on EU’s response to the Chinese activities in the Western Balkans.