Is EU Enlargement on hold yet again?

As Portugal’s EU presidency is reaching its final month, additional pressure is expected on Bulgaria to press it to resolve its ongoing dispute with North Macedonia in order to open Skopje’s path towards the first phase of EU accession negotiations.  Unfortunately for North Macedonia, it is next to impossible to project Bulgarian politicians and the country’s current caretaker government will move in that direction before parliamentary elections scheduled for July 11.  Last minute efforts are continuing however and there still is sufficient time for a compromise to be reached before the June Euro Summit.

Lost momentum

In light of the upcoming elections, Bulgaria’s current veto on North Macedonia’s accession remains in place, leaving EU officials and member states in a quandary as to whether the time is right to take the other candidate country, Albania, into the formal negotiation phase so as to regain lost momentum on enlargement.  Basically, the situation remains essentially where it was at the end of the German EU presidency last December.

Despite the noise being generated by pro-enlargement NGOs and the EU-wide media campaigns Zoran Zaev’s government in Skopje has authorized, the potential for real progress on the issue remains limited until the second half of 2021, when Slovenia takes over the EU’s rotating presidency.     

Going through the motions

Fruitless attempts to unlock Bulgaria’s standing veto on North Macedonia made interesting reading in May, however, and it is still unclear if the work done was simply to prove to enlargement skeptics in Southeastern Europe that the subject was alive and also to generate something positive to report at the June Euro Summit, barring a last-minute breakthrough, which some believe is still possible.  

In terms of pressure on Sofia, European Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi and Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva visited Bulgaria May 21 carrying some form of compromise formula designed to reach a solution.  Bulgaria’s caretaker Foreign Minister Svetlan Stoev told them no changes in his country’s position were forthcoming, although officials in Skopje reportedly found the proposal encouraging. 

Further boosting the appearance of diplomatic support for Skopje with a lightning visit of foreign ministers, Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg, the Czech Republic’s Jakub Kulhanek, and Slovenia’s Anze Logar arrived in Skopje May 22 to offer support and urge that Skopje’s EU accession talks begin in June if possible. While not unprecedented, the sight of ministers from three EU member states taking the side of a non-EU member country (North Macedonia) in its dispute with another member state, Bulgaria, raised eyebrows. 

Germany’s Minister for Europe, Michael Roth, said on a visit to Skopje May 27 that he still saw a chance of a breakthrough that would allow for progress in North Macedonia’s much-delayed EU accession talks by the time of the EU Council meeting June 22.  Not to be outdone, US Ambassador Kate Byrnes in Skopje commented on her host country’s potential EU accession, not an issue where the US has any direct input. “We see a positive way forward and are pleased with the ongoing conversation by both Bulgaria and North Macedonia to move North Macedonia EU accession forward,” the ambassador tweeted May 27.

A bilateral solution?

Bulgaria has made it clear several times that Skopje should be aware that its EU path runs mainly through Sofia, not through other EU capitals which seems to be its preferred tactic.  In recent days officials in Sofia have issued statements that indicate a willingness to move forward in the right conditions, even before the July elections. Time will tell if this is anything more than a delaying tactic. 

Bulgaria still expects North Macedonia to formally recognize that its language has historical Bulgarian roots and also to fight against what it alleges is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. Skopje says its identity and language are not open to discussion, a position many EU member states agree with in general terms since they do not want these identity/ethnicity issues connected in any way with EU accession processes.  

Readers will recall that in 2018 North Macedonia resolved its 29-year long dispute with neighboring Greece over the country’s name, which saw the country relabeled North Macedonia. Certain nationality issues between the countries were also resolved at that time, but not all of them, and the Greek media is constantly pointing out minor violations of the 2018 deal which includes a five-year transition period for some documents, signs etc. 

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