The EU should act resolutely after the Bulgarian veto

15 December 2020

The Bulgarian veto on the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia puts at risk the stability of the region and the core values of the EU.

by Branimir Jovanovic
photo: Kuznetsova

When the General Affairs Council last week ended without even discussing the question, it put a definitive end to any hopes that North Macedonia might start EU accession talks this year.

This time around it was neighbouring Bulgaria which blocked the start of the talks, by not agreeing with the proposed negotiation framework and demanding that it should also include bilateral issues between the two countries. Last year France did the same, requesting a new accession methodology because of the problems with some of the newer member states. Previously it was Greece that had been blocking North Macedonia for years because of its dispute over the name “Macedonia”, a problem that was resolved in 2018 with the signing of the Prespa agreement.

Thus, 15 years after North Macedonia formally got the status of a candidate country and 11 years after the European Commission recommended starting accession talks, the country still finds itself in the waiting room.

What’s behind the Bulgarian veto?

The main reason for the Bulgarian veto is undoubtedly the country’s current political situation. Massive anti-corruption protests have been shaking the government led by Boyko Borissov for the past five months, so the veto comes in handy to divert attention from the unrest. Borissov’s right-wing GERB party is also hoping to attract the nationalist voters by playing hardball with the Macedonian question ahead of Bulgaria’s elections next spring. Finally, even if Borissov were to agree to give the green light to North Macedonia, his partners in government, Krasimir Karakachanov and his far-right nationalist IMRO-BNM, might use this as an argument to topple the government and attract the nationalist voters towards them.

But it would be a mistake to belittle the problem as transitory and related only to ongoing political events. Its roots go much deeper and rest on long-standing historical questions related to the Macedonian state, nation, language and identity.

The Bulgarian parliament adopted a declaration in October last year on the EU accession of North Macedonia and Albania. While the declaration supports the two countries in starting the accession talks, it stresses stringent conditions for this. Some of the conditions for North Macedonia are that the country does not back claims of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, that it deletes monument signs that use phrases such as “Bulgarian fascist occupiers”, that it revises its history textbooks, and that EU documents do not feature the term “Macedonian language” but “official language of the Republic of North Macedonia”.

These demands might seem absurd to the casual observer, but they represent the Bulgarian national consensus on the Macedonian question. The declaration was adopted almost unanimously by the Bulgarian parliament, supported even by the opposition parties. Just four MPs voted against, and one member abstained. Bulgarian leaders refer to this declaration when justifying the veto, saying that they cannot go against the wishes of the parliament.

This position seems to dominate among the people, too. A much-cited recent poll shows that 84% of Bulgarians think that Bulgaria should not support the accession of North Macedonia before agreement is reached on the open historical questions. The same poll shows that, of all their neighbours, Bulgarians think that they have least friendly relations with North Macedonia.

Agreement now even harder to reach

After the veto the Macedonian government accused Bulgaria of violating the right of self-determination and of imposing an identity on the Macedonian nation. Bulgaria responded that North Macedonia could not count on Bulgarian support if it continued to pursue “totalitarian historical narratives”.

This represents a major cooling down in the relations between the two countries, which had improved in the previous two years after their signing of the Friendship Treaty in 2017, praised widely by the media on both sides of the border. Moments of informal jokes and warm greetings between the leaders of the two countries were widely shared on both sides.

This seems like the distant past now, as the public discourse in both countries has become very hostile towards the other side. Concessions would be hard to accept by either party, and such efforts might even produce a backlash. One telling example is the interview which the Macedonian prime minister, Zoran Zaev, gave on a Bulgarian TV station two weeks ago. In an attempt to improve relations between the two sides, he responded positively to some of the Bulgarian demands. Protests emerged immediately across North Macedonia, accusing him of national treason. The political costs of reaching an agreement have increased substantially, making the agreement very difficult even after the elections in Bulgaria.

At the press conference following the veto the German Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, tried to remain optimistic, saying that Germany stands by North Macedonia and that the question was not whether the country will start the accession talks, but when. This “when” might not be soon, given that the German presidency of the Council of the EU ends this year and that next year Portugal will take over, followed by Slovenia. It is hard to imagine that these countries will have the leverage to solve the issue, knowing that Germany failed and that a solution is now much more difficult to find than it was one month ago.

Economic consequences will be severe

The consequences of the veto will be serious, both from an economic and from a political point of view, and nobody will win from the situation.

The veto will put a damper on economic cooperation between the two neighbours. It will slow down the big infrastructure projects involving the two countries, such as the railway line between them and the upgrade of the road. Progress on these projects was already slow, but now the veto might put a complete stop to them. This will hurt not just short-term economic growth, which is gravely needed to help the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will also drag down economic cooperation between the two countries in the longer run, which crucially depends on the quality of their infrastructure.

Trade and investment will also suffer on both sides. North Macedonia will suffer because Bulgaria is one of its biggest trading partners and investors. In 2019 Bulgaria was the second-biggest destination for Macedonian exports and the eighth-biggest source of imports. It was also the ninth-biggest investor in the country. Bulgaria will suffer too, as North Macedonia is one of the few countries with which it has trade surplus, and it is the ninth most important destination for Bulgarian investment.

But political consequences are even more serious

The political consequences are even more serious, however, as the veto might lead to a destabilisation of the whole region of the Western Balkans.

EU scepticism will rise in North Macedonia, as the country has received the second veto in two years and has not been allowed to start accession talks despite changing its constitutional name in 2018. This will encourage far-right nationalists, who threaten to reverse the Prespa agreement and stop the EU integration processes. The doors are wide open to pro-Russian influences, which can easily spread from the Western Balkans to other countries. With many unresolved questions in the region, such as the status of Kosovo and Republika Srpska, things could easily get out of control.

The situation is further complicated by the notion that by way of collateral damage Albania has been stopped from opening its own accession negotiations. Frustration will grow there too, giving rise to the perception that Albania is paying the price of North Macedonia’s problems. This might damage relations between Macedonians and Albanians, which would be very dangerous, as around one-quarter of the population living in North Macedonia is of Albanian ethnic origin.

The Bulgarian veto is also setting a dangerous precedent, which might easily transform into a permanent halt to EU accession for the whole region. If Bulgaria is making North Macedonia’s EU accession conditional on demands related to history, language and ethnic minorities, what is there to prevent other EU countries from doing the same with other Western Balkan countries? Many countries from the Balkans, including also the EU Member States, have issues related to language, history and ethnic minorities. The Bulgarian veto threatens to open a Pandora’s box that might soon turn out to be hard to close.

And Bulgaria is certainly not winning from this situation either, as it is clearly seen in much of the rest of the EU as the bad guy in the story. It was alone in the decision to block the accession talks and may have to pay a hefty diplomatic price. Germany has clearly stated that it is disappointed by the Bulgarian decision and that it stands by North Macedonia in this dispute.

EU must take a tougher stance

But it would be wrong to point the finger at Bulgaria. The problem here is not Bulgaria, and nor is it a bilateral problem created by Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The problem here is the EU. The EU is not functioning as it should be, letting down its core values.

This has been evident for some time, as demonstrated by the undemocratic and authoritarian practices in Hungary and Poland. The peak was reached this year, when the two countries blocked the adoption of the EU budget until the last moment, rejecting its rule-of-law mechanism. Failing to take more resolute measures against such tendencies will encourage them further. It is thus not strange that Bulgaria has joined the EU’s 'awkward squad', and nobody would be surprised if its membership were to grow by the day.

Therefore, tougher diplomatic actions must be taken to resolve the Bulgarian veto and prevent the serious damage it is likely to cause. This year the EU has probably had bigger problems to deal with, such as COVID-19, Brexit and the EU budget, but from next year there must be no excuses.

It is also questionable how much diplomacy can work in cases like this, as evidenced by the problems in Hungary and Poland, which have just been growing. Perhaps it is time for the EU to reconsider its decision-making process. Insisting on consensus for every issue is in line with the EU values, but only when everybody respects these values. When certain members fail to respect them, insisting on consensus will only lead to a further erosion of these values.

Times have changed since the EU was established, and the EU should change, too. Without that the enlargement process threatens to be deadlocked, the stability of Western Balkans will be jeopardised, and the EU values will be betrayed. This must not be allowed to happen.