Richard Howitt, a British Labour MEP (Socialists & Democrats) is no stranger to paradoxes.
While his sympathy for Macedonia is known (he recently helped end a political crisis in the Balkan country), Howitt recommended delaying opening talks just before the Parliament took a vote yesterday (23 May) on his resolution urging an immediate start to the talks.
The European Council, where heads of state and governments sit, is expected to decide on whether to open accession negotiations with Macedonia at their 27 June meeting. But the item could now be taken off the agenda.
If confirmed, this would be the fifth consecutive year that Macedonia’s accession talks are delayed.
Greece doesn’t accept the name ‘Macedonia’ for its smaller neighbour because it fears that it entails territorial claims on its province of the same name.
The country's internationally recognised name is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
In addition, Bulgaria has recently stated that it expects Macedonia to sign a bilateral treaty, in which its neighbour would commit not to bring any territorial claims. A document on the Macedonian foreign ministry website says 750,000 Macedonians live on the territory of Bulgaria and 700,000 other on the territory of Greece, though the latest census shows that 1,654 Bulgarians identify themselves as ethnic Macedonian.
Bulgaria emerges as stumbling block
For Howitt, the issue goes beyond Macedonia or Greece. It now extends to Bulgaria, whose EU ambassador recently denounced Skopje's alleged reprisals against Macedonian citizens of Bulgarian descent.
Such discrimination "should ring the alarm bell" in European capitals, said Bulgaria's ambassador to the EU, Dimiter Tzantchev, in an interview with the German DPA news agency.
Speaking to the press following an EU summit on 22 May, Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev made it plain that Bulgaria's position on Macedonia had been well reflected in Tzantchev's DPA interview and that all public statements had been well coordinated.
“Our position is the position of the good neighbour, of the big friend of Macedonia, of those, who have always wanted them to be members of the European family. And because we are good friends, we point out at the problem,” Plevneliev said.
He added that for the good relations to continue, the signing of a bilateral agreement was a prerequisite and expressed the hope that the neighbouring country should take the issue seriously.
“The matter can be solved in just a few hours of talks”, Plevneliev said.
However, an influential Bulgarian MEP gave a more critical reading of his country’s relations with Skopje. Evgeni Kirilov (Socialists & Democrats) said that the real problem with Macedonia was "the extreme nationalistic rhetoric and policies” of the current government of Nikola Gruevski. He also spoke of “manipulation of history”, mentioning the “Skopje 2014” redevelopment project which in his words takes on board in its largest part Bulgarian historic figures.
“For the present political leadership in Skopje, the nationalist cause replaces the European one,” Kirilov said.
For Howitt, this nationalistic rhetoric has dimmed Macedonia's EU hopes.
“By the end of this year, I cannot predict whether this will be a country where EU accession negotiations have begun or one which may have lost its candidate status altogether,” Howitt said.