European Western Balkans
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Joining the EU? Piece of Cake!

Some weeks ago in Brussels, three cakes with the national flags of the EU, Albania and North Macedonia were offered during a celebratory reception after the EU Council’s Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). These cakes were supposed to mark the opening of accession negotiations for the two candidate countries. However, one of them tasted bittersweet. North Macedonia didn’t truly begin the negotiation process, as Albania did. For the first time in the history of EU enlargement, formal EU language contains a pre-process called “start of a process of opening accession negotiations”.

Before this, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen addressed Members of Parliament in the National Assembly (Sobranie) in Skopje, encouraging them to show “boldness and determination” like once before (In 2018, MPs voted for the Prespa Agreement, which ended the longstanding dispute with Greece over the country’s name. It then changed its constitutional name (from Republika Makedonija to Republika Severna Makedonija) and Greece unblocked the further NATO and EU integration of North Macedonia).  and vote for the French proposal(initially rejected by PM Dimitar Kovachevski) which should put an end to the Bulgarian blockade in the Council of the EU. This would allow North Macedonia to finally begin accession negotiations, 18 years since becoming a candidate.

The Bulgarian position is that the existence of the Macedonian nation is based on a false narrative and theft of Bulgarian history, whose language is merely a dialect of Bulgarian, and that the nation was created in 1945 as part of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. According to a statement by Bulgarian President Radev, North Macedonia must acknowledge this in order to move forward towards becoming a full-fledged member of the EU, and Bulgaria must not allow the legitimisation of Macedonism (Macedonian nationalism) in Europe.

Several days before, European Council President Charles Michel also visited Skopje, urging Macedonians: “this opportunity is too important to be missed. We have never been so close. Macedonians, you have an historic opportunity to say ‘yes’: ‘yes’ to the start of negotiations, ‘yes’ to the EU, ‘yes for our children. Your country has a chance to once again become an enlargement frontrunner.” Before the vote, Western media mostly reported on this as the moment in which the frozen enlargement process finally regained its historical momentum.

So, members of Parliament in the National Assembly said “yes”. But the mood in North Macedonia is not really one of celebration. Contrary to the enthusiasm in Brussels, the French proposals became the target of substantial criticism in the country by the public, academia, and both national and international experts. Protests have been taking place on the streets of Skopje, with ethnic Macedonian protesters rallying against the proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron.

What makes this cake so hard to swallow?

In 2017, North Macedonia and Bulgaria signed the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation. Part of the trust-building process was the establishing of a mixed historical committee with prominent academics from both countries, that would revise some important dates and figures in their shared history. The process was obviously influenced by politics, which was the reason why the committee did not deliver tangible results in this regard. In order to formally open negotiations, North Macedonia needs to amend its Constitution to include Bulgarians as a constituting ethnic group. Only after that will the second IGC be organised and the accession chapters opened. According to the last North Macedonia population census which took place in 2021, there are 3,504 ethnic Bulgarians living in the country, and only 762 of them speak Bulgarian at home.

The implementation of the Friendship Treaty is being included in the negotiating framework to be used in accession negotiations with the EU. North Macedonia must fulfil further measures, tasks and deadlines regarding the Bulgarian minority, hate speech and historical books; but there is no reciprocity from the Bulgarian side. Macedonian would be recognised as the official language of North Macedonia, but Bulgaria would immediately file a unilateral declaration not recognising it as such.

The bilateral protocol, which was kept secret from the public until it was signed and endorsed by the EU as a way forward. Joining a club comes always with a price, however, what steps is the EU ready to take in order to heal the rupture in the social cohesion of North Macedonia after this proposal?

Disputes over bilateral issues between an EU member state and an aspirant state have taken place also in the past. Though, it never touched upon the right of a nation’s self-determination and identity.

What are the domestic implications for North Macedonia?

Protests are taking place and nationalistic rhetoric is gaining ground and some political entities invest once again in nationalism. The complete lack of transparency from the Government, led by the Social Democratic Union and the Democratic Union for Integration, will most likely trigger a deep political crisis and make obtaining a 2/3 majority for any Constitutional change a real challenge. It seems as if a long and destabilising process is looming, with the EU contributing to the exact opposite of what it aims for – prosperity and democracy.

It is important for the countries aspiring to join the EU to know, whether they are required to only fulfil the Copenhagen criteria or the pattern of demands “a la carte” will be followed as a practice in the accession process.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, there are also other EU member states that plan to impose similar demands towards future aspirants for EU membership. For instance, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts published a paper in order to “protect Croatian interests”. If that’s the case, then it should not surprise us, why external actors can so easily meddle and their “charm offensive” gains ground in the Western Balkans.

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