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Bulgaria – From a strong champion of enlargement to its potential grave-digger

2020 was supposed to be a year when North Macedonia finally gets its well-deserved reward on EU accession path and starts the membership talks. It was supposed to be a simple and quick decision of the EU member states, after years of going back and forth. Yet, the populist ghosts came to haunt us once again. This time around in the form of a destructive decision by the Bulgarian government to block North Macedonia’s accession talks.

It did not have to go this way. Bulgaria could have also had its moment of glory by supporting North Macedonia, as it has co-hosted this year Berlin process. It could have decided to use to its gain the prospect of the political and economic predictability and development of its closest neighbor. Instead, by taking the role of a regional veto player, Bulgaria is disregarding the European values it should respect as a member state and is increasingly wasting the political capital it has in the EU.

By blocking North Macedonia’s EU accession, Bulgaria is foremost undermining its self-proclaimed contribution to EU foreign policy: consistent and persistent advocacy for the EU membership of the Western Balkans. Not only it forces the entire EU to follow its anti-European decision disrespecting its European partners and allies and their right of self-determination, irritatingly, but the unjustified vetoing of North Macedonia also comes from a country that many believe joined the EU thanks to much solidarity and support by other EU members.

Bulgaria has never earlier threatened to veto North Macedonia. Moreover, by signing the friendship agreement in 2017, the relations between the two countries had an upward trend. The unpredictable flip, which transformed Bulgaria from a strong champion of enlargement to its potential grave-digger, is an attack on the very foundations of the EU most visibly framed with a motto: united in diversity.

Following a long and difficult debate among EU member states; as a result of the most recent impetus to the enlargement policy by France, the accession process seemed to be clear once endorsed by the Council earlier this year. The new accession methodology was intended to make the process more political and just by including the member states more profoundly in the accession process, not to be used as a venue for further politicisation.

This irrational quest will undermine the EU success to consider its broader interests in the region and revitalize the EU accession process with the countries of the Western Balkans.

Furthermore, by exaggerating national narratives, Bulgaria risks undermining the image of the EU as a predictable and trust-worthy foreign policy actor. With rising criticism towards the EU’s lack of engagement and joint foreign policy in its Eastern Neighborhood, from Belarus to the Caucasus, Bulgaria is set to undermine the EU’s engagement in the Western Balkans as well.

Besides the efforts by the German Presidency to facilitate an agreement, public reactions from other EU member states are painfully lacking. For an observer, this deafening silence seems as if the Union stands in solidarity with Bulgaria: ruthlessly destroying the EU prospects of the country and consequently, the entire Western Balkan region. If it stays that way, it will permanently damage the EU enlargement policy and will indefinitely postpone the full unification of Europe.

Not standing to EU’s values and standards in the accession process leads towards nurturing future EU members that will act in this manner once they become part of the EU widening the gap between the conditionalities and the way they are (mis)used. The kind of solidarity Bulgaria requested from its European peers today, is bound to create side effects in other policy areas, making it difficult for the EU to find common grounds. The current negotiations concerning the EU budget are a case in point. Because of the rule of law mechanisms, Poland and Hungary are opposing the Recovery fund in its current form. Again, the national interests that go against EU values have more weight than the European interests.

This is bad news for North Macedonia’s internal reforms as well. Rule of law and other very important reforms, implemented under the banner of the EU alignment with the acquis, might be stalled because of unprecedented ill-founded “open” issues. The majority of the population who wants North Macedonia to reform itself for our own sake could, as it happened in the years following 2009, be sidelined and made irrelevant.

By hampering North Macedonia’s European dreams and taking advantage of being an EU member state, Bulgaria effectively renders the entire Enlargement process subservient to its national interest. The institutional design and the need for unanimous decision-making are easily abused and will continue to be so if it remains unchanged. The on-going case of North Macedonia shows how easily and unfoundedly EU interests can be jeopardized by a single member state. For this reason, expanding on the European Commission’s proposal from 2018, the only way forward is to introduce qualified majority voting to all intermediary stages of the EU negotiation process. A qualified majority vote by the Council — 55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the EU population —to validate the progress or backsliding of a candidate country would make the process fairer and more effective. If adopted, it would place the Council in a better position to reward but also to sanction.

At this point, the EU member states cannot become advocates or inadvertent promoters of historical revisionism and a nationalist agenda, including the denial of the Macedonian nation and language. Instead, EU member states should focus their energy in defending core European values and interests, pressure Bulgaria to agree with opening of accession negotiation with North Macedonia and to facilitate a dialogue between the two countries on issues where compromise can be made.

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