EU Enlargement Is Broken in the Balkans

Ukraine and Moldova are shortlisted for the European Union. Ask North Macedonia how that went.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski
North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski
North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski gives a press conference after the European Union-Western Balkans leaders meeting in Brussels on June 23. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

Hours after the European Union made a historic decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova last week—a move that could open the door to EU membership—Bulgarian lawmakers sent a reminder about what a long and winding road that will probably be.

Bulgaria’s parliament last week voted to lift its own two-year-old veto on membership negotiations for neighboring North Macedonia after apparently reaching agreement on terms for the country’s accession. North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but its accession process has been continually stymied. Among the most virulent objections has been Greece’s veto over the country’s name, which was changed from Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia in 2019 following a 27-year historical dispute between the two nations. Soon after, Bulgaria introduced a veto in 2020 because of another long-running quarrel over history and language. 

The back-and-forth over North Macedonia’s membership in the EU is a message to the latest would-be member states that, even if Brussels is open to new countries, not everybody else in the neighborhood is. All EU enlargement decisions require unanimous approval from member states, making the expansion process a hostage to history, language, and regional rivalries. Since the 1995 enlargement for Austria, Finland, and Sweden, the accession process has become longer and more complicated, with the case of the Western Balkans being the most pronounced. 

Hours after the European Union made a historic decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova last week—a move that could open the door to EU membership—Bulgarian lawmakers sent a reminder about what a long and winding road that will probably be.

Bulgaria’s parliament last week voted to lift its own two-year-old veto on membership negotiations for neighboring North Macedonia after apparently reaching agreement on terms for the country’s accession. North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but its accession process has been continually stymied. Among the most virulent objections has been Greece’s veto over the country’s name, which was changed from Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia in 2019 following a 27-year historical dispute between the two nations. Soon after, Bulgaria introduced a veto in 2020 because of another long-running quarrel over history and language. 

The back-and-forth over North Macedonia’s membership in the EU is a message to the latest would-be member states that, even if Brussels is open to new countries, not everybody else in the neighborhood is. All EU enlargement decisions require unanimous approval from member states, making the expansion process a hostage to history, language, and regional rivalries. Since the 1995 enlargement for Austria, Finland, and Sweden, the accession process has become longer and more complicated, with the case of the Western Balkans being the most pronounced. 

Bulgaria insists that Macedonian identity and language have Bulgarian origins. Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, has also voiced concern about the alleged repression of Bulgarians in North Macedonia, who number around 3,500. North Macedonia has denied these claims.

Friday’s vote in the Bulgarian parliament on the veto essentially gave the green light to a draft solution crafted by France. But it is a conditional green light. Among the list of demands outlined in the document is a call for North Macedonia to acknowledge the country’s Bulgarian minority in the preamble of its constitution. There’s also a requirement that “nothing in the EU accession process of North Macedonia can be interpreted as recognition by Bulgaria of the existence of a ‘Macedonian language,’” which many Bulgarians reject as a separate language. 

Skopje is unlikely to play ball. “What we have are impossible bilateral issues that are a denial of our identity,” said Nikola Dimitrov, a former minister of foreign affairs of North Macedonia. “Bulgaria has been given the right [by the EU] to keep us on a short leash during the accession process. This means that bilateral issues will be promoted to European issues like the rule of law. That shouldn’t be the case.”

Relations between leaders from the Western Balkans and the EU came to a head on Thursday hours before the announcement on Ukraine and Moldova. In a fiery exchange, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama accused the EU of championing a “crooked spirit of the enlargement” by allowing Sofia to continue with its veto. 

“The enlargement spirit has gone from a shared vision of an entire community to the kidnapping of individual member states,” he said. Albania, which received candidate status in 2014, had a lot at stake: The EU has grouped its accession bid with North Macedonia’s, as is commonplace in the enlargement process.

Rama also sounded a note of caution to Ukraine and Moldova over their EU membership expectations. “North Macedonia [has been a] candidate since 17 years, if I have not lost count, Albania since eight, so welcome to Ukraine. It’s a good thing to give candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people will not make many illusions about it.” In a text message, the prime minister said he was relieved by the Bulgarian vote, but he described it as the “end of the very beginning.”

Albania will now likely advance to accession negotiations with the EU while North Macedonia tries to work out a compromise. The halting progress, experts said, is needed to show new aspirant members that the door to the EU is not bolted shut. 

“Now that the EU is giving candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, they needed to ensure the credibility of the enlargement process in the Western Balkans in order to ensure the credibility of the process with these two countries,” said Zoran Nechev, a senior researcher at IDSCS, a North Macedonian think tank. “But the process is broken in the Balkans, and I guess they [the EU] wanted to know that they could move something.”

But appeasing Bulgaria has set a dangerous precedent for the future of EU enlargement, analysts fear. Not only will it likely spur further nationalist sentiment in North Macedonia and Bulgaria, but it could also set a road map for other member states on how to use the enlargement process to settle old scores with neighboring countries. 

“One example could be Hungary vetoing Ukraine’s progress to accession negotiations over Transcarpathia,” said Nechev, in reference to the western part of Ukraine that is home to approximately 150,000 ethnic Hungarians. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Budapest had threatened to block Kyiv’s membership in NATO over the country’s language law, which gave Ukrainian special status and made secondary schools switch to Ukrainian language and teach minority languages in separate classes.

“At the end of the day this is a Pyrrhic victory for Bulgaria. There is no love lost among presumed brethren in North Macedonia,” said Dimitar Bechev, at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies. Dimitar Kovacevski, the prime minister of North Macedonia, “is in a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ position,” Bechev said.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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