European Western Balkans

Opening accession negotiations for North Macedonia: A symbolic step forward with many worries

Petr Fiala, Dimitar Kovačevski, Edi Rama and Ursula von der Leyen; Photo: Twitter / @DKovachevski

Last week, the European Union agreed, after two years of Bulgarian blockade, to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. The green light came a few days after Skopje accepted the French proposal. Even though it was endorsed by the parliament of North Macedonia, many remain dissatisfied with it.

While the opposition, led by VMRO-DPMNE, claims that the French proposal is about the “Bulgarization “of North Macedonia, some experts and civil society organizations believe that the EU has relented to Sofia’s demands too much, which could complicate accession negotiations of North Macedonia with the EU in the near future.

The French proposal implies that constitutional changes will guarantee the rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia. Also, North Macedonia will have to “reflect good relations with Sofia” during the accession negotiations.

In addition, the proposal states that Bulgaria does not recognize the Macedonian language. This was confirmed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria on the same day the negotiations were opened in Brussels. While the “historic moment” was being celebrated in Brussels, the official Sofia announced in a statement that they did not recognize the existence of the Macedonian language by greenlighting the opening of negotiations.

Ivana Jordanovska, Fulbright Fellow at New York University, explains for European Western Balkans that the content of the French proposal comes from a place of power imbalance.

“We don’t really have a true alternative to joining the EU, and the EU showed they understand this when asking and pressuring us to accept the proposal. Bulgaria’s demands, as ungrounded in reality as they are, were taken seriously in the EU, further emboldened by the French veto in 2019 “, says Jordanovska.

She adds that in the future, the best case scenario is to hope for a reasonable, progressive government in Bulgaria that won’t use the mechanisms for delaying the country’s accession.

Jordanovska says that, at the moment, there is a cacophony of voices that raise criticisms of the EU in North Macedonia, adding that part of them are anti-EU elements and are using this episode as a strong rallying point.

“Others are actually sincere Europhiles – myself included – that believe in the idea of Europe united more than anything else. However, we see that the current politics only lead us to Europe divided. Furthermore, looking out to the region, it is a scary thought to give member states and future member states, such strong powers over bilateral issues. It will complicate future accessions and manifest inequality and unfairness in the accession process “, Jordanovska assessed.

Nikola Dimitrov, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), said in an interview last week for Telma Television that the EU’s negotiations with North Macedonia are about “bilateralization of the European process”. For Dimitrov, it is a “sad celebration of the Macedonian government”, because the Bulgarian veto will be extended throughout the entire European integration process.

French proposal polarised Macedonian society

Last week’s intergovernmental conference with Skopje was mostly symbolic because, before the opening of the first negotiation chapters, the Macedonian Constitution will have to be changed. According to the country’s political system, changing the constitution will require a two-thirds majority in Sobranje, which does not exist without opposition parties that strongly opposed acceptance of the French proposal.

Led by the largest VMRO-DPMNE, the opposition parties announced that they would demand a referendum on the Protocol on Cooperation with Bulgaria, for which the Parliament authorized the Government in Skoplje in mid-July in a vote on the French proposal.

In an interview for Telma TV, Nikola Dimitrov said that the Government of Dimitar Kovačevski promised that for the actual start of negotiations with the EU, it would deliver something that it cannot – the introduction of Bulgarians into the Constitution, for which it does not have a two-thirds majority.

“At the same time, the Bulgarian side not only doesn’t talk about Macedonians in Bulgaria, but it doesn’t talk about Macedonians in North Macedonia,” Dimitrov said.

Ivana Jordanovska assesses for EWB that the country is now highly polarized, adding that French proposal has done long-term damage to the EU in North Macedonia.

“We are starting accession negotiations with a bitter taste in our mouths: everything that comes after this from the EU, regardless of how good it might be, will be “fruit of the poisoned tree” for many people – meaning they’ll hold negative attitudes just because of this episode “, believes Jordanovska.

She assesses that, furthermore, the EU has strengthened some seriously damaging extreme-right wing and pro-Russian elements in North Macedonia.

“Even if there are no early elections, the elections in 2024 will see a boost in support for these politicians. After doing so much to democratize after the Gruevski regime in 2017, it is highly unfortunate that in 2022, the EU acted as a destabilizing and de-democratizing factor in North Macedonia “, says Ivana Jordanovska.

Although North Macedonia has been waiting for over 17 years for the opening of negotiations with the EU, many in North Macedonia are still sceptical and not entirely satisfied. In the case of the bilateral dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, it seems that Brussels has set a precedent by encouraging and legitimizing Bulgaria’s nationalist demands, which could complicate and slow down North Macedonia’s negotiations for full membership.

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