North Macedonia Hopes Talks Will End Bulgaria’s EU Blockade

North Macedonia’s leaders hope more intense talks will result in neighbouring Bulgaria lifting its blockade on the start of its EU accession talks by the end of this year, though some analysts are not convinced a snap solution is in sight.
Malinka Ristovska, from the European Policy Institute, EPI, a Skopje-based think tank, told BIRN that while the Bulgarian blockade is unlikely to last as long as the so-called “name” dispute with Greece, the issue cannot be easily overcome.
“I don’t believe that this will turn into a copy of the ‘name’ dispute with Greece because the EU as well as us have all drawn some experience from that – but I also don’t believe in a quick solution because Bulgaria shows no flexibility and it has gone too far with its demands,” Ristovska said.
On Tuesday, at the EU Council of Ministers meeting, Bulgaria acted on its earlier threat and blocked the Council from adopting a negotiating framework for North Macedonia, which would allow the start of long-awaited accession talks.
Its objections centred on the use of the Macedonian language in the negotiating framework and differing views on their shared history, and Sofia demanded an explicit denial from Skopje that a Macedonian minority exists in Bulgaria.
“I believe a solution will have to be found over a mid-term period, and even if we manage to unlock the start of the EU accession talks, the issues with Bulgaria will have to be resolved in parallel with the talks over the next years,” Ristovska commented.
She said it was a good thing that the German EU Presidency did not include Bulgaria’s “unacceptable demands” in the draft negotiating framework that still awaits adoption, and will determine the course of the accession talks.
If memberships talks are not unlocked by the end of the year, when the German presidency ends, the baton will pass to the next two countries presiding over the EU, Portugal and Slovenia.
North Macedonia has deemed Sofia’s decision to block its talks as a wider failure of EU enlargement policy, as a bad message for the whole region and as a defeat for fundamental European values ​​and principles.
“Bulgaria’s refusal to approve the negotiating framework is not in the spirit of good neighbourly relations. This position of the Bulgarian government is contrary to Article 2 of the 2017 Friendship Agreement [which obliged both sides to cooperate on preparing North Macedonia for future EU membership]. Our position is clear. We believe European integration must not be held hostage to bilateral issues,” the North Macedonian government wrote after receiving the news from the Council.
However, it added that “talks will continue until a win-win solution is found in the interest of our European future”.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, told TV station 21 that he took the blockade personally, but was still confident that this is not the ultimate wish of his Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borissov, and the Bulgarian people.
He had no other explanation for Bulgaria’s hard -line stance other than the proximity of elections in Bulgaria next year, but was hopeful of a solution by the end of the year. “I believe it is still possible to reach a solution,” Zaev said.
North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister, Bujar Osmani, echoed this hope.
“I think Bulgaria is aware of the damage it has done,” Osmani told the media. “The EU’s credibility has been built for decades and too much has been invested in that credibility to be so easily undermined. I think that this situation will lead us to a position where we can all reflect on the stakes and the consequences,” Osmani said.
The German Minister for Europe, Michael Roth, announced more talks before the end of December after Tuesday’s blockade, adding that the German EU Presidency is not giving up its efforts to help clear the way so that Skopje can launch its membership talks as intended, before the year’s end.
“Last week, the presidency tried to bring the positions closer but we did not manage to persuade them to agree on the negotiating framework. In the next days or weeks, we will surely try to send this important signal for the Western Balkans, which will depend on the willingness of both sides to come to terms. That is not entirely up to us,” Roth was quoted as telling MIA news agency.
Meanwhile, at home, the main opposition party in North Macedonia, the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party, blamed the government and its diplomatic team for Tuesday’s failure, demanding resignations.
Former VMRO DPMNE foreign minister Antonijo Milososki demanded the resignations of Foreign Minister, Osmani and the Minister for European Affairs, Nikola Dimitrov. The party in a press release also called on PM Zaev to resign, which he immediately dismissed.