Bulgaria and North Macedonia sign a bilateral protocol but the path to the EU is far from clear

Bulgaria and North Macedonia sign a bilateral protocol but the path to the EU is far from clear

North Macedonia and Bulgaria signed a bilateral protocol on Sunday (17 July), a key element in the framework of EU accession negotiations. This signature paves the way for a first intergovernmental conference which should take place at the beginning of the week.

Despite this historic step, the path is far from clear.

After a week of protests marked by eruptions of violence, ethnic clashes and accusations of foreign interference aimed at destabilizing the region, 68 out of 120 MPs voted in favor of the French proposal in the Macedonian parliament on Saturday (July 16). There were no abstentions or votes against, and the opposition — staunch opponents of the proposal — boycotted parliament.

Then, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed the protocol. The delegations from Skopje and Tirana will travel to Brussels at the beginning of the week for their first intergovernmental conference, which will mark the official opening of all the chapters to be tackled before being able to officially join the EU.

“Bulgaria strongly supports the European integration of the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania. We wish them success on the path they have wanted to take for a long time,” Genchovska said on Sunday after signing the protocol with Bujani in Sofia, following the second meeting of the Joint Intergovernmental Commission of Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

No Bulgarian recognition of the Macedonian official language

The contents of the protocol have not been made public but should be in the coming days. The ten-page document includes specific measures and deadlines in the relations between Sofia and Skopje, mainly to settle their historical differences. Their implementation will depend on how quickly Skopje moves closer to the EU, and the process will be monitored by the European Commission.

However, Bulgaria did not wish to reconsider its position concerning the official language of North Macedonia.

According to Ms. Genchovska: “We fully comply with the decision of the National Assembly. As you know, in its bilateral relations with the Republic of North Macedonia, Bulgaria does not recognize their official language. However, this is a bit too specific for the other 26 EU Member States, as they have their position and we cannot in any way force them to accept our official position”she explained.

Bulgaria will issue a unilateral statement in which it will decide on the official language of North Macedonia, while the Intergovernmental Commission is expected to issue a statement on Bulgaria’s right to dissent.

A long way to go

Despite the excitement generated by the latest news in Brussels and the region, it may still be a decade or more before the two countries join the Union. A number of issues need to be resolved and a range of reforms undertaken to bring the two countries into line with European standards in the rule of law, media freedom and in areas such as the environment, energy and agriculture.

One of the provisions of the French proposal provides in particular for the Bulgarians to be included as a minority in the Macedonian Constitution. While the adoption of the proposal required a simple majority, for an amendment to the Constitution, a two-thirds majority is required, which is not currently possible.

The opposition group VMRO-DPNE, led by Hristijan Mickoski, not only boycotted the vote but held a press conference with 44 MPs shortly afterwards to announce that they would never agree to change the Constitution.

“We will not budge a millimeter from this decision. There is no turning back because everything we have is behind us, our dignity, our honor, and our Macedonia”said Mr Mickoski, also calling for new elections and the continuation of the demonstrations which he described as “will of the people”.

Albania, “victim” of a blockade

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, a strong supporter of the French proposal, said he was happy that “Albania’s senseless hostage-taking is over”. Indeed, the fate of Albania was linked to that of North Macedonia throughout the accession process, hence Tirana’s frustrations with the Bulgarian veto.

“It has taken three long years since the decision of the Council to open the way to negotiations for the series of artificial obstacles erected in front of Albania to disappear completely… These extraordinary challenges have tested not only the government, but also our character as a country, as a community of people and as a majority in power, of course”he wrote.

Like Mr Rama, ethnic Albanians living in North Macedonia were also generally supportive of the proposal.

Xhelal Neziri, journalist and analyst said that Albania “was a victim in this blockade, she neither created the problem nor could do anything to solve it” and added that the decoupling of the two countries as requested by Mr. Rama is not a good idea.

“This decoupling was seen as a dangerous step, as in this case it would create frustration among ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia, who make up around a third of the population. »

He explains that these issues pose a risk to the internal security of North Macedonia, while recalling the dangerous inter-ethnic conflict of 2021. Fighting broke out between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces and if peace broke out maintained, tensions over rights and representation remain.

As for Mr. Rama’s support for the proposal, Mr. Neziri said it gave some Macedonians the impression that he was anti-Macedonian.

“This narrative was constructed precisely by political forces who wanted to undermine support for this proposal. Mr. Rama was also aware of this, but it seems that he did not even think about the effect it creates in the neighboring country: he was looking for a well-deserved reward from the EU”he concluded.

Turbulent times in Bulgaria

Moreover, the fact is that the proposal was only approved by a simple majority, without the presence of the opposition, and since more difficult tasks await us, this will cause problems.

Meto Koloski of the United Macedonian Diaspora said that after 17 long years of waiting, their progress within the EU now depends on “Bulgaria’s version of history, which includes Holocaust denial and revisionism, which will undermine the stability of the EU”.

“Bulgaria is experiencing great instability within its government, and the conditions imposed by Bulgaria are a reflection of internal Bulgarian politics — which should have no bearing on Macedonia’s EU membership”he continued.

Indeed, Bulgaria has known a tumultuous period. Disputes over the veto led to a vote of no confidence that toppled the government and will force citizens to go to the polls for the fourth time in less than 18 months in the fall. Although the veto has now been lifted, given the French proposal, the latter remains unpopular with citizens who, for the most part, do not favor any concessions to Skopje.

Furthermore, North Macedonia’s failure to meet the requirement to include ethnic Bulgarians in the constitution risks opening another Pandora’s box in the months or years to come.

For now, this good news is the much-needed ray of hope for both countries after the disaster of the recent EU-Western Balkans summit, where Mr Rama and his Macedonian counterpart took to the stage with cold faces and harsh words. The leaders hit the headlines after criticizing the bloc’s lack of unity, and the fact that the European Union and NATO countries are ” taken hostage “ by a single state, Bulgaria.

As Mr. Rama said, “Let’s not forget that this is not the end of our road, but only the beginning of a new stage”.

[Edité par Théo Bourgery]

Enlargement stalemate angers Western Balkans

On the sidelines of triumphant rhetoric over the imminent granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, European leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday (June 23rd) faced frustrated Western Balkan counterparts over the lack of their own progress on the road to the EU.

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