Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

The Bulgarian hammer comes down

Ongoing language dispute freezes EU Enlargement process

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Firmly refusing to approve the negotiating framework for the “Intergovernmental Conference” required to launch North Macedonia’s EU accession process, Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva November 17 restated her country’s firm opposition to moving forward now, citing North Macedonia’s refusal to respect a shared history.
Bulgaria restated its hardline position on the matter during a scheduled teleconference of EU ministers; it has been widely categorized as a veto.
The question has been simmering for months now, largely unnoticed outside of Southeastern Europe, and creative solutions have been made vastly more difficult by the tough position taken by right-nationalist Bulgarian political leaders in advance of parliamentary elections expected in the early months of 2021.
Bulgaria has voiced repeated concerns that any EU documents that appear to accept the existence of a Macedonian language would create internal problems for Sofia concerning a small minority group there that considers itself “Macedonian,” which most Bulgarians have difficulty accepting since they consider the country recently renamed North Macedonia to be a Bulgarian offshoot artificially transformed into a separate nationality within Tito’s Yugoslavia, primarily for political reasons.
In North Macedonia, the right-nationalist opposition blamed the current government for the diplomatic impasse and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, European Affairs Minister Nikola Dimitrov, and Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani.
An overworked Germany may not deliver
Germany’s EU presidency is effectively over in little more than one month and the list of unresolved serious concerns, beyond the EU Enlargement question, is considerable.  The tussles with Poland and Hungary over the EU budget, the unresolved issue of aggressive Turkish behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean and potential sanctions, and the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh top the list.  Accordingly, it is unclear whether Berlin can muster the energy or time to resolve something that it considered to be a major objective of its six-month presidency, launching the Enlargement process for North Macedonia and Albania this year.
Leaders in Sofia would also be aware that Berlin’s span of control at this point in time is extremely limited and that an unsatisfactory (to them) German solution simply cannot be imposed, for once.
After the November 17 EU ministers’ meeting, Michael Roth, Germany’s EU Affairs Minister, expressed the hope that a reasonable “bilateral solution” could still be found, and indeed the text of a proposed solution to the language element of the dispute, still apparently unsatisfactory to Sofia, was leaked to the press last week.
Since an overloaded Germany may be unable to resolve the Bulgaria-North Macedonia dispute before the end of its presidency, and incoming rotational EU president Portugal is unlikely to possess the gravitas needed to move the issue forward on its own, the potential for a major delay on Enlargement cannot be discounted.
Do not look to Washington
With ongoing disarray in Washington, few analysts expect Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently claimed “to be preparing for a second Trump Administration,” to be able to engage the EU effectively or credibly on this issue.  What little energy Washington currently retains for foreign political concerns will not be focused on EU Enlargement processes, although middle-level State Department officers and a few Trump-era US Ambassadors may still issue interventionist statements and tweets that will instantly fade into the ether.
Those same American diplomatic staffers, most of whom are departing soon, invested heavily in the failed Greek socialist government of former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, primarily to press for Greek approval of the Prespes Agreement in 2018 which resolved the Name Dispute between Athens and Skopje and was supposed to open the pathway to EU accession for North Macedonia, in theory.  While that part of the puzzle is holding firmly, it is unrealistic to expect the US, in its current condition, to mediate the latest Balkan horror story.

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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