ATHENS – The Bulgarian objection to the opening of accession negotiations by North Macedonia seriously endangers the efficiency of EU policies in the Western Balkans, said Nikolaos Tzifakis, Professor of the University of the Peloponnese and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) for EWB.
“Raising at this stage a largely unanticipated obstacle to North Macedonia’s European path undermines the credibility of EU enlargement policy. EU candidates should be certain at all times about what is expected from them to accomplish in order to advance towards full membership”, said Tzifakis adding that arguably, no Bulgarian veto over these matters (i.e., language and history) was in sight a year ago.
Bulgaria demands that the negotiating framework contains guarantees that Skopje will fulfill the conditions from the Friendship Treaty between the two countries signed in 2017, which was one of the preconditions for Bulgaria not to veto.
The agreement addresses historical issues, including Bulgaria’s request to omit claims to the Macedonian identity of some historical figures from history textbooks in North Macedonia and guarantees that official EU documents avoid mentioning the “Macedonian language” that Sofia claims originated in Bulgarian.
However, the blockade of Bulgaria is just another in a series of obstacles that North Macedonia is facing on its path to the EU. In order to meet Greece’s demands, North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement with Greece in 2018 and changed the name of the country, thus resolving a decade-long dispute that prevented its progress towards EU membership.
Tzifakis underlines that if North Macedonia’s EU accession does not advance, the implementation of the Prespa Agreement between Athens and Skopje will also be imperiled.
“This is because the Agreement describes a gradual process of steps that depend on progress in North Macedonia’s EU accession. The prospect of EU membership has been without a doubt the single most important motivation for Skopje to concede to a compromise solution on its state name. Finally, if the EU fails to aptly acknowledge the reform efforts of Zoran Zaev’s governments, it would deprive itself of any means to instigate positive political change in the region away from authoritarianism”, Tzifakis pointed out.
He added that therefore, we should not underestimate this crisis that puts at stake the whole array of European geopolitical interests in the Western Balkans.
Tzifakis argues that moreover, to the extent that most of the EU influence in the Western Balkans is linked to the promise of membership, Brussels would lose most of its leverage in the Serbia-Kosovo talks.
“No-one reasonably expects Belgrade and Pristina to assume the political cost of a compromise solution that is not linked to the credible prospect of EU accession.”, Tzifakis concludes.