Bulgaria-North Macedonia tensions: how can the EU respond?5 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Southeastern Europe
It is no exaggeration to say that the prospect of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is at its most perilous since the framework of European integration for the region was set out in Thessaloniki in 2003. 

Despite the fact that North Macedonia made a huge step towards EU accession in reaching an agreement with Greece over the infamous name dispute, France decided to veto accession talks at the European Council summit in 2019. The EU’s attempt to commence negotiations failed for the second time last year. Bulgaria blocked this crucial step towards membership over a dispute with North Macedonia involving history and language.

The lack of commitment on the part of Brussels to honour the accession process means that the bloc now faces the risk of losing its political leverage in a region troubled with long-standing internal instability.

The tensions between North Macedonia and Bulgaria can find their source in the Yugoslav collapse in 1992. The incorporation of the Republic of Macedonia as a constituent state of Yugoslavia in 1946 seemingly settled whether Greece, Serbia, or Bulgaria held a rightful claim to Macedonia following Ottoman loss of the territory in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.  

Debates on the ownership of elements of Macedonian history, language, and culture – the so-called Macedonian Question – reignited when Yugoslavia broke apart. The effort to reach a resolution on the issue took a significant step forward with the agreement between Greece and North Macedonia over the latter’s name in 2018. 

Despite this historic breakthrough, Bulgaria holds the view that Skopje cannot begin talks with the EU until the status of the Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian language is recognised. Sofia also insists on Macedonian acknowledgement of its historical roots with Bulgaria and the non-existence of a Macedonian ethnic minority in Bulgaria.

Sofia-Skopje dispute allows Russia to hinder EU enlargement prospects

Russia has taken full advantage of the dispute to frustrate attempts to resolve the crisis and put the EU enlargement agenda back on course.

In a sign the region is once again subject to great power competition, the Russian embassy in Skopje acknowledged that the origins of Russian literacy lay in the Macedonian land. 

Moscow’s intervention on the issue is a deliberate act designed to provoke nationalist grievances in Sofia. This follows a similar pattern in the case of Montenegro where Russia used the alleged coup attempt in the country in 2016 to thwart its NATO accession. North Macedonia as a result is left unable to move forward with accession yet again as Bulgaria struggles to find the political incentive to reach reconciliation. 

Although Bulgaria’s conservative GERB party now finds itself in opposition, the caretaker government has shown no intention to reverse the decision to block accession talks with Skopje.

EU undermined by lack of strategy on the Bulgaria-North Macedonia issue

Nonetheless, there is nothing in the EU response to the Sofia-Skopje stalemate to suggest that the bloc is prepared to engage with the issue in order to find a resolution.

The Enlargement Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, proposed the controversial idea of moving talks ahead with Tirana without Skopje. 

However, Bulgaria’s insistence that it will not lift its veto until its concerns are addressed raises the possibility of delaying accession talks with North Macedonia for a further 18 months as elections take place in Bulgaria, France, and Germany. 

This should be cause for concern for the prospect of European integration in the Western Balkans. Any delay would have implications for the credibility of the enlargement process after the extraordinary political steps North Macedonia has taken. 

The EU has always reiterated the need for candidate countries in the region to do homework’ in order to be granted the opportunity to join the bloc. This prompted North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, to Brussels that denying his country the permission to start accession talks risks the EU’s already precarious leverage in the region.

The emergence of a political environment favouring autocratic interests is derailing EU calls for further reforms.

In North Macedonia, there are still issues surrounding corrupt practices in public procurement and illegal acquisition of property. A similar picture can also be observed in Albania. The property market in the country is being distorted as the value of real-estate transactions rose despite the Covid-19 pandemic causing a heavy blow to the Albanian economy.

How the Green Agenda could help ease tensions 

The paralysis that the EU enlargement process finds itself indicates that Brussels has to take a more proactive approach if it wishes to respond to Russian meddling in internal Balkan affairs.

There is reason to suggest that the Green Agenda offers the EU the opportunity to deepen economic engagement and help facilitate a resolution between North Macedonia and Bulgaria in the process.

The employment opportunities created through EU investment in the Balkan green energy sector would provide Skopje with an economic incentive to strike good relations with its neighbours, including Bulgaria. 

Initiatives taken by North Macedonia to gradually phase out coal as its main source of energy have made the country attractive to foreign investment. Just this February, the North Macedonian government secured an 80.5 million Euro loan agreement with German investment bank, KfW, for the building of green energy projects. This deal is a real boost for North Macedonia as it looks to secure a sustainable economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bulgarian investment in North Macedonia’s green energy industry may also encourage Sofia to shift its position. In the spring, the North Macedonian state-controlled energy company, ESM, chose Bulgaria along with Turkey as partners for its solar power project in Oslomej in western North Macedonia. Space for striking a resolution would open up if bilateral economic engagement continues to deepen between Sofia and Skopje.

Through the adoption of the Green Agenda, the EU can also counteract North Macedonia’s warning that Brussels risks losing leverage in the region. In aligning policy on climate and energy reform, the Sofia Declaration commits the six states in the region to work with the EU to reach its decarbonisation goal by 2050.

If Bulgaria and North Macedonia are to resolve their differences and clear the pathway to EU accession, the Green Agenda may just be what nudged them in the right direction.

Featured image: Sofia, Bulgaria / Alexandr Bormotin and Skopje / Ervo Rocks
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