Facing pressure, Bulgaria tries to explain its North Macedonia veto

Dimitar Tzantchev [Dnevnik/Krassimir Yuskesseliev]

Facing pressure from EU members, the Bulgarian ambassador to the EU explained on Tuesday (11 May) to the EU ministers his country’s decision to veto the start of neighbouring North Macedonia’s accession negotiations.

Dimitar Tzantchev represented Bulgaria at the General Affairs Council, the EU27 ministerial format which decides EU enlargement-related issues, while on the same day President Rumen Radev appointed a caretaker Bulgarian government before snap elections on 11 July.

Bulgaria vetoed the decision to open EU membership talks with North Macedonia last November, a move which indirectly also affected Albania, another Western Balkans candidate which has advanced on its EU path in tandem with Skopje.

The move came as a surprise to many, as Bulgaria had been a strong promoter of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, having organised a special summit during its Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018.

But in the meantime Skopje failed to deliver on a bilateral treaty with Bulgaria from 2017, effectively blocking the work of a joint committee tasked to sort out the issues of “common history”. In parallel, Sofia flagged a fresh wave of anti-Bulgarian hate speech in North Macedonia.

In 2019 the Bulgarian Parliament unanimously adopted a tough declaration warning Skopje that Sofia will not tolerate the distortion of historical events, documents and artefacts, as well as the role and views of personalities from Bulgarian history.

Several EU members, including Austria, have criticised the Bulgarian stance.

Speaking to the EU ministers, Tzantchev said that Bulgaria is “the last country needing to be convinced why the Western Balkans should one day become part of the EU”.

“Unfortunately, we are facing a problem. However, it is not a bilateral problem, as some of you obviously think. It refers to the principles on which our Union is built and operates”, the ambassador said, according to a transcript seen by EURACTIV.

According to Tzantchev, this is the first time in the history of enlargement that a candidate country is pushing to determine the conditions under which to start negotiations on its accession to the EU.

“For the first time, we have a candidate country that declares that it wants to become a member of the EU, but without giving up its communist-era state-building ideology.”

“For the first time, we have a candidate country that states that it does not consider itself obliged to respect the treaties it has signed with an EU member state. Such behaviour cannot be tolerated because it is an open challenge to the foundations of the EU”, the Bulgarian ambassador stated.

However, Bulgaria has failed to explain to the foreign audience the real issues behind Skopje’s hostile attitude. EU diplomats are little aware of the anti-Bulgarian campaigns in North Macedonia and the presumed complicity of the authorities in publicly bashing Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has mobilised considerable lobbying in EU circles and this is further antagonising Bulgaria, which complains that Skopje is wooing influential EU members to twist Bulgaria’s arm instead of addressing the issues with its neighbour.

Many Bulgarians find it shocking that fellow EU members are showing more solidarity with a country outside the Union. Internally, the issue has put into question the very basics of EU  solidarity.

North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who visited EU headquarters this week, said on Tuesday he had a “clear mission in Brussels these days, to pass the message from North Macedonia’s citizens to EU officials, that we work hard and we delivered and we want to give our fair share to the future of Europe”.

“We are not asking more than what we deserve, and that is to hold the first intergovernmental conference as soon as possible. A setback for North Macedonia will be a message of discouragement for the entire Western Balkans,” Zaev said after talks with the chief EU diplomat, Josep Borrell. He did not explicitly refer to problems with Bulgaria.

However, the change of government in Bulgaria – be it the caretaker cabinet or the new government to be formed after the July elections – is unlikely to change the country’s position vis-à-vis Skopje, in the absence of tangible progress at the bilateral level.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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