Over the summer, a European Union proposal to resolve the dispute between North Macedonia and neighboring Bulgaria, which had imposed a veto on its application for EU membership, caused many social upheavals in this Balkan country. The Macedonian opposition rejected what became known as the “French proposal” and called for mass protests.
After the Macedonian government approved the proposal and Sofia lifted its veto, opposition parties said they would vote against changes to the constitution to accommodate the document’s provisions. In September, the opposition also announced that it wanted to hold a referendum to cancel the 2017 treaty on good neighborly relations between the two countries, which was rejected by parliament – for now.
That the opposition is taking advantage of the situation to seek political gain is understandable. But in his opposition to the “French proposal” and a resolution of the dispute with Bulgaria, he was joined by the majority of civil society presumed to be progressive and pro-EU.
This exposed the troubling reality that so-called supporters of EU integration are quite quick to give it up and argue for “alternatives” that would most certainly undermine North Macedonia’s democratic path and stability.
To understand the dangers of this situation, it is important to remember how North Macedonia got there. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, together with Slovenia, the then Republic of Macedonia was one of the first former Yugoslav republics to receive recognition of its independence by the European Community (now the European Union) . In 2005, he received EU candidate status. Yet, due to disputes over its cultural heritage and national history with its EU neighbors Greece and Bulgaria, it remained in the EU waiting room for almost 20 years, the start of accession negotiations having been delayed.
The dispute with Greece was resolved in 2018 with the signing of the so-called Prespa Agreement, which changed the country’s name to North Macedonia and confirmed its ethnic, cultural, linguistic and national identity rights. The 2017 treaty on good neighborly relations was supposed to establish a framework to resolve the dispute with Bulgaria over historical, linguistic and minority rights issues. In 2020, however, Sofia imposed a veto, citing non-compliance with the treaty. This decision was probably an attempt by Boyko Borisov’s government to divert attention from a wave of protests calling for his resignation.
The insistence of Skopje’s neighbors on interpreting what the national and ethnic identity of Macedonians should be, while turning bilateral disputes into an unofficial condition for the country’s integration into the EU, has caused understandable frustration in the country.
But under current EU rules, each EU member has the right to veto the opening of accession talks for non-EU states. France, Denmark and the Netherlands, for example, also vetoed accession negotiations with North Macedonia.
At the beginning of the year, faced with Bulgarian intransigence on the right of veto and seeking to give new impetus to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, Brussels, under the French presidency, set up a framework for negotiation for Sofia and Skopje – the so-called “French Proposal”. The Bulgarian side agreed and lifted its veto, but the Macedonian opposition, including right-wing parties, such as VMRO-DPMNE, with proven links to Hungarian strongman Viktor Órban, and the so-called nationalist party leftist named La Gauche (Levica) rejected it, seeing it as a host of concessions to Bulgaria on issues of Macedonian identity.
I invite the reader to look at the document and make their own judgment – it is a sterile, standard technocratic document asking for reconciliation between the two countries in the name of good neighborly relations.
It makes a unique reference to the friendship agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria as well as to the Prespa agreement. He specifies that the rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia should be recognized, which would require a constitutional amendment. This is the main Bulgarian demand.
Admittedly, the document also allows Bulgaria to unilaterally challenge the distinctiveness of the Macedonian language and possibly declare it a “Bulgarian dialect”. However, such a possibility will not affect the fact that the EU recognizes the Macedonian language and the distinct national identity of Macedonians, which is quite clear in the proposal.
Yet the opposition’s disinformation campaign against the document succeeded in attracting supposedly “neutral” and pro-Western civil society organizations, which also waved the banners of “NO to [this] EU” and “NO to an EU that wants to make us Bulgarians”.
That last slogan sounds comical, but it’s been used seriously – many think tanks have published plenty of such analysis. Some have even begun to publicly discuss alternatives to EU membership, such as alignment with Eurasia and a regional arrangement along the borders of the former Yugoslavia.
As it stands, EU- and US-funded think tanks, academic institutions and NGOs in North Macedonia do not support recognizing the Bulgarian minority in the Macedonian constitution – at the exception of a handful.
The Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, for example, strongly rejected the “French proposal”. This is hardly surprising given that it is rooted in an atavistic “national romanticism” similar to that which the Serbian Academy of Sciences adopted in the 1990s when supporting Slobodan Milosevic’s wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Macedonian intellectuals and civil society siding with the nationalists also encouraged some renowned foreign scholars and experts on Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans to assume that their position must be the correct one. I have no other explanation than that my dear foreign colleagues who took the position of “strong defenders of the Macedonians” did not really read the 25 pages of the document.
Some claim that “the French proposal” introduced history as a criterion in the accession process. I do not agree. The general position of the Council of the EU simply demands that the two neighbors settle their dispute but does not say how, not in terms of history. How is this “bulgarization” of any kind? Good neighborly relations – hence regional stability – are one aspect of the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership.
If North Macedonia withdraws from the treaty with Bulgaria after a referendum or does not respect its commitments to recognize the rights of the Bulgarian minority in the constitution, this would effectively block its accession to the EU. And it would not be Bulgaria that would impose a veto. The EU Council itself would stop the process for failing to respect the negotiation conditions set out in the “French proposal” and to respect the provisions of the Copenhagen criteria.
Clearly, we are facing growing xenophobia towards Bulgaria and the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, combined with growing Euroscepticism, which endangers the whole process of EU enlargement. If left unresolved, North Macedonia’s democratic path will be greatly undermined.
Given today’s geopolitical realities, non-alignment for small countries like North Macedonia is not a real option. Thus, Skopje must choose between EU membership or Eurasian integration, that is, alignment with Russia and China.
North Macedonia is surrounded by neighboring states of the EU and is also at the heart of a region which has suffered from recent conflicts and which remains unstable. In this context, alignment with non-European geopolitical actors can lead to regional instability that would affect the whole of Europe.
This is why the toxicity at the heart of Macedonian political culture must be addressed. The only remedy is cultural rapprochement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. The Open Balkans initiative, an informal political and economic area established by Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania seeking to act as an ersatz EU with its own “mini-Schengen” (open borders movement) can be useful here if it opens up to its EU neighbours: Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.