Securing a place in the EU is not easy for any nation, but this little Balkan country was tested like no other candidate.
On October 31, North Macedonia held local elections resulting in the resignation of Prime minister Zoran Zaev. On the other side of the border, Bulgaria had its third Parliamentary election this year. The two unsuccessful attempts to form a cabinet created political chaos in the country but did not stop it from vetoing North Macedonia’s EU process. This is because Bulgarians hold some strong views on the Macedonian Language. It’s not the only sticking point, but is by far the biggest obstacle in the process.
The Bulgarian Academy of Science claims North Macedonia’s history and language have Bulgarian roots. The position in the capital city of Sofia is that Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect, whereas those in Skopje, North Macedonia, dismiss the idea completely.
The dispute was partially solved in 1999 in a joint declaration in which both sides committed to develop good-neighbourly relations and foster cooperation. More importantly, the agreement was signed in two copies, one in “the Bulgarian language, in accordance with the constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria” and the other in “the Macedonian language, in accordance with the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia.”
A friendship treaty renewed good relations between both sides in 2017. Subsequently, Bulgaria assisted the Republic of Macedonia in meeting the necessary criteria for membership in the European Union and joining NATO.
However, in 2020, as the EU was about to start the negotiations with North Macedonia, Bulgaria vetoed the process. The only way to unblock the situation was contingent on North Macedonia accepting that “the official language used in today’s Republic of North Macedonia can only be considered a written regional norm of the Bulgarian language.” Also, the ex-Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, said that Skopje did not abide by the Friendship Agreement, especially the articles preventing expressions of hatred toward Bulgaria.
Similarly, in September, Zaev, despite criticism he received in North Macedonia, justified his claim to edit school textbooks to remove the word “Bulgarian,” where it appeared before “fascist occupier.” Similarly,” in a friendly spirit,” the wartime monuments, which had inscriptions of similar tone, were edited.
A few months earlier, in May, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, and the Portuguese Foreign Minister, Augusto Santos Silva, visited Sofia to pursue a solution. However, Sofia did not change its stance and maintained the veto.
Subsequently, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Svetlan Stoev, said their stance toward North Macedonia would not change. The main argument was that the current view was agreed upon by all political factions in the previous Parliament.
Parted on earth, together in space
More interestingly, the leader of the winning party of Bulgaria’s July snap elections, Slavi Trifonov, said, “We will do everything possible to send our first Bulgarian man and woman astronauts at NASA, as well as to send a Northern Macedonian.”
These words seriously angered Skopje, especially the use of North Macedonian. Zaev said their nation is called Macedonia, and they speak Macedonian, just like their “Bulgarian friends speak Bulgarian.” Therefore, they insisted on a correction.
Macedonian news headlines further stoked the fire by asking why their neighbour is ready to send them to space but not let them enter the EU. Ivan Kuzmanovski, a Macedonian journalist, saw it as a new seed of conflict and summarized the situation with ironic flare: “Probably our grandchildren will have to make a new commission to decide who first set foot in space - your astronauts or ours.”
On the other hand, Skopje decided to draw its own “red lines.” The Parliament adopted new rules to set boundaries on the identity talks with Bulgaria.
At the Western Balkan Summit, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev announced that the sides were working on a bilateral protocol with six main points of cooperation. However, this time, language was just part of the requirements. On a panel on TRT World’s “Across the Balkans,” which focused on the disagreement, political analyst Petar Arsovski said that “the content of the amendments is not so much the core of the dispute.” Rather, it was the political will to open the negotiations.”
In the Western Balkan Summit, Zaev and Radev again tried to find a solution. This occurred in a joint meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of France, Emanuel Macron. However, despite emphasizing the regional importance of North Macedonia’s EU membership, Radev stuck to the traditional view and insisted on recognizing “the historical truth” in the relations. Meanwhile, Boyko Borissov, former Bulgarian prime minister, said he would support North Macedonia’s EU membership if he won the next election.
However, Angel Panchev, Associate Professor at Sofia University, shared one distinct view on “Across the Balkans”: “Bulgarian policy does not depend on which Parliament will be in charge,” adding that the Bulgarian position would not change after the elections.
However, the language issue was not North Macedonia’s first stumbling block on its EU path.
Once upon a time, there was a country named Macedonia.
Among the 195 countries in the international arena, only 11 have changed their names for various reasons. The last member to join this select club was North Macedonia. In 2018, after a long and gruelling process, North Macedonia and Greece signed the Prespa agreement, as the country was ready to be part of the EU family. However, Bulgaria would not let that inclusion happen without solving the subsequent issue of language.
Additionally, North Macedonia’s EU journey resembles a double standard. Cyprus did not solve its problem but still entered the EU. Despite being EU members, the United Kingdom and Spain had their fight over Gibraltar. Similarly, Croatia’s entrance to the EU was not obstructed because of its territorial dispute with Slovenia. Perhaps, when one talks about North Macedonia’s EU future, one must focus on the EU’s capricious entrance requirements instead of the neighbourly conflict over futile assertions.
Being part of the EU is not easy, and every member must deserve its place. However, this little Balkan country was tested like no other candidate. Such an arduous journey has turned North Macedonia’s candidacy into a Pyrrhic victory.