Skopje has found its path to EU membership stalled again by a cultural dispute with one of its neighbours.
North Macedonia’s EU accession has stalled again after Bulgaria alleged that the North Macedonian language was not Macedonian but a form of Bulgarian.
– North Macedonia’s EU accession would drastically increase its democratic development and mark a clear geopolitical tilt towards Brussels
– The EU is likely to avoid confrontation and defer to North Macedonia and Bulgaria to reach a unified agreement
– EU enlargement in the Balkans remains a risky endeavour given the region’s complex history, politics and culture
North Macedonia has faced a difficult journey on its road to EU accession. For close to 30 years, a naming dispute with Greece was the main hurdle on its path towards Brussels. In 2018, the dispute was resolved when Greece agreed to recognise its neighbour as the Republic of North Macedonia rather than just Macedonia. Now, two years later, another neighbour has blocked North Macedonia’s EU accession talks. Once again, history — in this case, what to call North Macedonia’s official language — is the key stumbling block.
A LONG MARCH TOWARDS BRUSSELS
North Macedonia would be the second former Yugoslav republic to join the EU after Croatia in 2013. North Macedonia’s accession, which would likely mark a dramatic shift towards greater economic and democratic development, has been many years in the making. In March 2020, the EU gave approval for North Macedonia and Albania to begin formal EU accession talks, and an intergovernmental conference was due to take place in December. Bulgaria has continued to back Albania’s accession framework, but North Macedonia has not been as fortunate. Sofia seeks the formal acknowledgement that the language spoken by North Macedonia’s Slav Macedonian majority is not Macedonian but a variant of Bulgarian. Sofia also seeks formal recognition of the Bulgarian origins of North Macedonia and the guaranteed rights of North Macedonia’s minority Bulgarian population.
Similar to the prior actions of Greece, Bulgaria’s use of bilateral issues to stall processes between North Macedonia and the EU has frustrated EU diplomats. The dispute between Sofia and Skopje is a sensitive bilateral topic, meaning that the EU must tread carefully lest it be perceived as meddling in the internal affairs of the two countries. The appearance of undue influence by the EU prior to accession risks amplifying populist and nationalist forces that could harm reforms once inside the bloc. As in the Greek naming dispute, the EU is likely to avoid confrontation absent a unified framework and consultation between both nations. In short, Brussels is likely to defer to North Macedonia and Bulgaria to reconcile their dispute. Brussels may offer to host mediation talks and consult with other member states, but with adherence to the accession framework and the approval of North Macedonia. It is unlikely that Brussels will rescind the accession framework unless events spiral out of control and Bulgaria and North Macedonia suspend bilateral relations.
A DELICATE DANCE IN THE BALKANS
It took many years to resolve North Macedonia’s naming dispute with Greece, and the resolution appears increasingly fragile, given Bulgaria’s ability to capitalise on it. A second dispute in such a short timeframe risks undermining North Macedonia’s prospects for EU integration as well as its further democratic and economic development. North Macedonia’s stalled EU accession could affect Albania as well, as it is unlikely Brussels would go ahead with accession talks for one nation and not the other. Albania and North Macedonia’s candidacies have occurred in tandem, and a preference for Albania could risk the deterioration of Brussels’ relations with North Macedonia. This could set back EU enlargement in the Western Balkans for decades, and risk democratic backsliding and progress on a wide range of economic reforms. Without EU membership, there is a greater risk of corruption, threats to the rule of law, and a stalled transformation to a competitive, market economy. Political pluralism, the growth of civil society, and the foundations for an independent judiciary and media would also be at risk. Democratic backsliding can occur within EU member states, as witnessed in Hungary and Poland, but North Macedonia would risk backsliding from an even weaker democratic position.
Any geopolitical vacuum in Europe also presents vulnerabilities for outside actors like Russia and China to exploit their respective agendas. Russia was accused of interference in the 2016 general election in North Macedonia, and the naming dispute and divisions between Christians and Muslims are likely fodder for Russia to stoke dissent. Russia has also voiced its disapproval with North Macedonia’s potential NATO accession, and Moscow is keen to prevent Skopje from integrating with Western-led institutions.
Beijing is eager to further its influence in the Balkans as well. In the Western Balkans, China has made great inroads in Serbia, which is also a candidate for EU accession. Should talks with North Macedonia be prolonged, China may consider investing in its smaller neighbour. This could help reinforce Beijing’s infrastructure network leading to Greece, where the port of Piraeus is a major node in China’s global infrastructure-led Belt and Road Initiative.
PROSPECTS FOR A TROUBLED REGION
Despite strong democratic gains and EU and NATO membership for states including Croatia and Montenegro, the Balkans remains a fraught and divisive region. EU enlargement in the region is a risky endeavour given the region’s complex history, culture, and politics stretching back centuries. The Balkans have proven to be a tinderbox for stoking conflict and instability, from World War I to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. The sectarian divisions in the region are unparalleled in Europe (with the possible exception of Northern Ireland). A protracted dispute over North Macedonia’s accession is likely to require difficult concessions from both Bulgaria and North Macedonia and may spark renewed historical debates over language and minority populations. There is also the risk that Bulgaria’s campaign against North Macedonia could backfire — Sofia has had its own difficulties with corruption and judicial reform and Bulgaria currently ranks as the most corrupt EU member state. If Bulgaria is viewed as acting undemocratically by stalling an EU-wide accession framework, its standing in Brussels is likely to diminish even further.
The EU is likely to face the difficult choice of whether North Macedonia’s accession is worth the risk of greater regional intransigence and infighting. If Bulgaria had lodged its protest concurrent with that of Greece, the matter may have been resolved earlier and more easily. And as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, the infighting amongst existing EU member states over the EU budget and other matters is likely to persist. EU leaders may be less inclined to respond to North Macedonia given the priority of resolving problems with Hungary and Poland over the EU budget, which Western members have sought to tie to democratic consolidation. Should it achieve membership, North Macedonia is likely to enter an increasingly fractured EU, regardless of whether the language dispute is resolved to Bulgaria’s satisfaction. This could harm North Macedonia’s legitimacy as an EU member state and cause further bottlenecks for EU-wide legislation and agenda items. As the dispute with Bulgaria proceeds, the North Macedonian government is likely to promote the benefits of EU membership that it has fought so hard for. However, a battered accession process that reveals deep regional differences may be a precedent that Brussels and other member states are unwilling to set.