Bulgaria objected to the official start of European Union accession talks with North Macedonia, hindering the nation’s efforts to open the long-delayed negotiations by year-end.
Countries in the western Balkan region, engulfed by wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, are all striving to join the EU to raise living standards. Albania and North Macedonia have waited more than a decade to start talks, with the latter even changing its name to resolve a dispute with Greece.
But that’s still not enough. At a virtual meeting of EU affairs ministers on Tuesday, Bulgaria effectively vetoed a negotiation framework for North Macedonia on the grounds that its neighbor is violating a 2017 bilateral treaty aimed at resolving historical disputes.
“Bulgaria at this stage can’t support the draft negotiation framework,” Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva told reporters in Sofia. “If there are unresolved bilateral issues at the EU’s table, and there are such issues between some members, this won’t make the union any stronger.”
EU membership for western Balkan nations would strengthen the position of the West in the regional tug of war with Russia. But that path is riddled with obstacles tied to nationalist rivalries that helped fuel the wars of the 1990s — Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since World War II.
Sofia wants guarantees that North Macedonia won’t claim the existence of its national minority within Bulgaria’s borders and that it has no territorial claims. It also wants EU accession documents to avoid the phrase “Macedonian language,” which it says derives from Bulgarian.
In addition, the two countries should agree on disputed historical figures from the early 20th century.
The dispute may help Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov restore some of his credibility before next year’s general election. Since July, thousands of protesters rallied in big cities, urging him to resign over what they call a failure to fight corruption.
Borissov’s junior coalition partner, a loose alliance of nationalist parties called The United Patriots, has long insisted that North Macedonia officially admit historical roots with Bulgaria.
“I’m prepared and I prepared the Macedonian people for an eventual blockade,” North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, told reporters on Sunday.
The standoff has already caused troubles in the EU. In October, Bulgaria blocked an agreement between North Macedonia and Frontex, the bloc’s border-protection service, aimed at improving security in a region that was the main land route for migrants in 2016.
EU aspirants are also struggling to advance an enlargement process that is facing skepticism among some states.
“The accession process here mustn’t be become hostage to bilateral demands of individual member states,” German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth said before Tuesday’s meeting.
The U.K.’s departure and backsliding on the rule of law in members Hungary and Poland have made some countries reluctant to embrace more entrants. France insisted last year that the accession process be reworked include democratic principles, delaying approval for Albania and North Macedonia to start talks until March.
“Nobody in the EU is really rushing it,” said Dimitar Bechev, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Now North Macedonia will lose precious time.”