MEPs put pressure on Bulgaria on Thursday (25 March) to lift its veto on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia but failed to pass an amendment criticizing the Bulgarian position.
The developments came as the European Parliament adopted its reports on progress toward accession for Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
The greatest intrigue was whether an amendment by a group of socialist and green MEPs that supports the position of candidate country North Macedonia over member state Bulgaria would gather enough support to become part of the European Parliament resolution.
Bulgaria vetoed in November the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia, warning that it would not tolerate the distortion of historical events, documents, and artefacts as well as the role and views of personalities from Bulgarian history.
Sofia meanwhile accused Skopje of hate speech, freezing infrastructure projects and not implementing a bilateral treaty on good neighbourly relations signed in 2017.
Tanja Fajon (S&D, Slovenia), one of the authors of the amendment, slammed the Bulgarian veto as “irresponsible.”
“Bulgaria has to withdraw its veto. The credibility of the EU is at stake. The crisis caused by the Bulgarian veto is only going to threaten the enlargement process for other countries,” she said.
The rapporteur on North Macedonia Ilhan Kyuchyuk (Renew, Bulgaria), took a critical position vis-à-vis his own country, despite support for the veto coming from all political forces in Bulgaria, including his own party, Movement of Rights and Freedoms.
Kyuchyuk said that despite some positive developments over the past two years, the European Council’s decision on North Macedonia and Albania at the end of last year was “harmful for the Western Balkans, and had a direct negative impact on the respective countries and their societies”.
North Macedonia had demonstrated commitment to the European path and understanding of the need to implement stable and inclusive democratic reforms, he said.
“I hope that both countries will resume the constructive dialogue on the pending bilateral issues in order to achieve sustainable results,” Kyuchyuk said, adding that a possible solution would be to reach a “compromise over an action plan of concrete measures.”
Implementation of these measures “would be regularly assessed in accordance with the Friendship treaty, would restart the process and allow the Council to convene the first Intergovernmental Conference as soon as possible,” he added.
Further delays would put at risk the credibility and objectivity of the accession process, the rapporteur warned.
On behalf of the Council, Ana Paula Zacarias, secretary of state for European Affairs of Portugal, which holds the rotating EU presidency, also spoke of the need to seek “pragmatic solutions,” urging Skopje to strengthen democracy and implement deep reforms.
Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said he hoped the first Intergovernmental Conference would be opened if possible under the Portuguese Presidency, that is, by the end of June.
However, regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations form an essential part of the country’s process of moving towards the EU, he said.
“It is important that the Prespa agreement with Greece and treaty on the good neighborly [relations] with Bulgaria continue to be implemented in good faith by all parties. In such a pivotal moment, I encourage both Skopje and Sofia to redouble their efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution to the pending bilateral issues”, the Commissioner said.
He also warned that “all parties to refrain from statements or actions that might undermine the EU’s wider interests.”
Andrey Kovachev (EPP, Bulgaria) said the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia, of whom 130,000 have Bulgarian passports, live in fear, citing a recent outpouring of bile against North Macedonia’s Eurovision candidate after he made public his Bulgarian origin.
“Yes to enlargement, no to hatred and discrimination,” Kovachev concluded his one-minute statement.
Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, from the nationalist VMRO party, part of the ECR group, said the Eurovision candidate had received more than 400 death threats just because he said he was Bulgarian.
The MEP also referred to citizens of North Macedonia who participated in a campaign to receive a free book in the Bulgarian language, only to then reportedly be questioned and intimidated by the police.
Dzhambazki also said that the 130,000 Bulgarians in North Macedonia are not allowed to declare themselves as Bulgarians at the forthcoming census in North Macedonia.
“This is North Korea,” he said.
Alexander Yordanov (EPP, Bulgaria), agreed, saying that the language spoken these days in Skopje was not Macedonian, but “the language of hatred.”
“Bulgaria would like to see North Macedonia in the EU, but only after this country inoculates itself against the communist coronavirus of the past,” he said, with reference to the anti-Bulgarian policy under the former Yugoslavia.
Petar Vitanov (S&D, Bulgaria) deplored the fact that non-Bulgarian colleagues from this political group had taken a critical position against his country and that this was being used by right-wing forces in Bulgaria to slam the main opposition socialists ahead of the 4 April general elections.
“The dialogue between Bulgaria and North Macedonia needs dynamism, not dynamite”, he said.
The remaining co-authors of the amendment who took the floor refrained from directly criticising Bulgaria. At the end of the discussion, the Report was passed and the amendment was rejected.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]