EU enlargement: Beware the veto epidemic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov (R) and his North Macedoni's counterpart Zoran Zaev (C) attend a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of Macedonian revolutionary Gotse Delcev (on portrait) in the garden of Orthodox church St. Spas in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia, 1 August 2019. [Georgi Licovski/EPA/EFE]

Dangling its veto, Bulgaria only uses its position of EU member to achieve some of its foreign policy interests, in the same way that many others have done before. The problem is that the EU does not have the desire and the way to discourage such unilateral actions, writes Orhan Dragaš.

Dr Orhan Dragaš works for the International Security Institute in Belgrade. He is author of the book “Two Faces of Globalization – Truth and Deceptions”.

Macedonians are emotional people and probably had a hard time withstanding the sudden cooling they were exposed to in just a few days – from enthusiasm for the first participation in the next European Football Championship, to another, new blockade on their path to EU membership.

It is possible that these things are not comparable and that they do not interest all Macedonians equally, but there are some common symbols in Macedonia’s steps towards Europe, both football and political. It is difficult, long-lasting and they have been waiting for success for decades, but for now, there are results only in football, not political qualifications.

The fact that Bulgaria blocked the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia is neither a novelty nor a surprise.

There is a long history of neighborly stumbling on the path to gaining EU membership. Slovenia blocked Croatia because of the border in the Piran Bay, so Croatia, as soon as it became the EU member, blocked Serbia’s negotiations, and Bulgaria did that briefly three years ago, because of the position of its minority in Serbia.

Greece held Macedonia for decades without any chance of integrating into Europe and NATO, until it changed its name. All the while, the EU was repeating that unresolved neighbourly problems must not be a reason for an EU member to veto its non-EU neighbour. But who would believe that, especially after the Bulgarian veto?

So, the problem is not that Bulgaria conditions Macedonia’s accession, Bulgaria only uses its position of the EU member to achieve some of its foreign policy interests, in the same way that many other have done before. And it’s completely legitimate.

But the problem is that the EU does not have the desire and the way to discourage and prevent such unilateral actions of its full members.

To the fact that Bulgaria conditions North Macedonia with historical and identity issues, Germany, as the current EU presidency, is responding coldly and disinterestedly – let them solve it themselves, and we will help if they call us…

In this case, the EU shows the greatest and most open disinterest so far in opening the door to new members from the Balkans. Neither Brussels, nor the main European capitals are trying to find comforting, optimistic words for those who are still in the waiting room, they simply have no will for that anymore.

What they are really facing and where it’s “burning” are blockades and veto votes within the EU itself. How to deal with Hungary and Poland, which are blocking the adoption of a giant budget of 1.8 trillion euros, because its use is conditioned by respect for human rights and the rule of law.

One veto, the Bulgarian one, concerns only the citizens of North Macedonia and perhaps their Balkan neighbors, but the other, Hungarian and Polish, concerns the whole of Europe, the rich one. Although their ranges are different, their essence is the same – they do not bring anything good neither for those who veto, nor for those to whom the veto applies.

Europe has been hitting the walls for a long time, which it has set for itself and its efficient functioning. Its bureaucratic form has eaten away at its progressive and valuable content, from which it cannot be extracted without major internal reform.

The Bulgarian veto on negotiations with North Macedonia, and even more the German silence on the occasion of that veto, is a reminder to Serbia that it will enter an EU different from what it is today.

It will most likely be the EU divided into several zones, circles, “speeds”, as Macron described two years ago. Such an EU already exists in reality; its zones are bordered by economic power, which is natural and functional.

Until that reality is made official through the reform of the Union, there will be more and more vetoes. And they will be more severe, until the EU is transformed into a functioning community, not like the one we have today, which no one wants to leave.

Serbia’s path to EU membership will celebrate coming of age next year. (Serbia – along with 5 other Western Balkans countries – was identified as a potential candidate for EU membership during the Thessaloniki European Council summit in 2003.)

Serbia will know that Europe accepts  it within its structures only if there are such gestures. The disbursement of millions of euros in aid to overcome the consequences of the pandemic was such a gesture.

Otherwise, Europeans will be easily replaced in the Balkans by some other big players from the world, which will be detrimental both for the EU and the Balkans. After the Bulgarian move regarding North Macedonia, it is difficult to expect a strengthening of faith in the EU and of the desire to join it anywhere in the Balkans.

The vacant place of European enthusiasm is immediately taken by someone else, in whose plans for the future of the Balkans there is not much room for progress, security and development of the Balkan nations. And unfortunately in the Western Balkans, there is still a lot of potential for conflict, poverty and corruption.

And while Europe underestimates the risk that lies behind Bulgaria’s veto of Macedonia’s path to the EU, fortunately, the United States has a clearer view and demands that such problems be resolved outside the EU accession process.

As in the case of the frozen negotiations on Kosovo, which it reactivated, Washington is emerging as the main sponsor of the Balkan path to the EU: More than Europe, whose job it is.

And judging by the statement of Michael Carpenter, former foreign policy adviser to Joseph Biden, who said that neither Bulgaria nor North Macedonia get anything from the current conflict, that only those who want divisions in Europe benefit from it, the trend will continue in the future administration.

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