Article by Tineke Strik, Member of the European Parliament, Greens/EFA spokesperson for North Macedonia and Maja Morachanin, Member of the Sobranie and leader of the Green party (DOM) in North Macedonia
The current Bulgarian veto blocking the start of negotiations for the accession of North Macedonia to the EU is endangering the political stability in North Macedonia, the credibility of the block in the entire region, and could set a dangerous precedent for the accession of other Western Balkan countries. All Member States, the European Commission and European Parliament should therefore apply maximum pressure on Bulgaria in order to drop its veto and ensure progressive continuation of the EU accession process for North Macedonia.
The European Commission and Parliament have always taken a very clear and consentient position towards the accession of North Macedonia. From 2009 onwards, the Commission has issued positive recommendations for the opening of negotiations, based on the official political accession criteria as defined at the Copenhagen European Council in 1993. The European Parliament has ever since endorsed the Commission’s observations and recommendations in multiple resolutions, calling upon European leaders to take the next step in the accession process.
However, the EU accession process of North Macedonia is currently stalled due to issues with no relation to the official accession criteria. Since the Commissions’ positive judgement in 2009, the process has been stuck at the level of EU leaders. The required unanimous endorsement was not achieved due to bilateral disputes with respectively Bulgaria and Greece. After the election of a pro-European Government of North Macedonia, the main hurdles seemed lifted when the country agreed to a Treaty on Good Neighbourly relationships with Bulgaria and the Prespa agreement with Greece.
The next hurdle - an unexpected blockade by France, the Netherlands and several other Member States - was obviated by the adoption of a new accession methodology. When EU leaders finally were able to unanimously approve the start of negotiations last March, it seemed the path was finally cleared for the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia.
Nevertheless, Bulgaria backtracked and now hijacks the accession process over a bilateral cultural-historical dispute, keeping North Macedonia in the EU waiting room even longer.
During this whole process, North Macedonia has continuously demonstrated its determination to a future inside the EU. Skopje has taken EU recommendations very seriously and completed several deep reforms, such as anti-corruption and anti-discrimination legislation and an improved system of the judiciary, contributing to an overall strengthening of the Rule of Law. The country changed its name, solving a longstanding bilateral dispute with Greece, thereby enabling EU and NATO accession.
EU leaders should realise that they are playing a very dangerous game with the pro-European support and political stability of North Macedonia. When the EU fails on its promise, other foreign actors will step in and increase their influence in the country - a trend already visible in the entire Western Balkan region.
The Western Balkan region is closely watching the process in North Macedonia and the current veto over a bilateral issue. Letting national interests of one Member State prevail over the official accession criteria now, could set a very bad precedent for all potential accession countries in the region. It undermines the EU’s credibility and the motivation of societies to engage with the accession process. Europe also needs a successful accession process of the Western Balkan countries, if it aims at regional stability and a sustainable future for the young generations. Especially Bulgaria should realize that is among the first to benefit from a stable Western Balkan region, considering its geographical location.
Therefore, ensuring that the Bulgarian veto is lifted should be a top-priority for the EU. So far, public pressure on Bulgaria has only come from the European Parliament, on initiative from the Greens. To provoke real action, Member States and the European Commission should prioritise the issue too, and pave the way for North Macedonia towards EU membership.