North Macedonia’s EU path is under threat from an unlikely actor

Much of the Macedonian civil society has joined the right in rejecting a deal with Sofia and Brussels. This is dangerous.

People wave the old and the current national flags and chant slogans during a protest, while police officers guard the entrance of the parliament building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, July 16, 2022. North Macedonia parliament's majority backed French proposal on Saturday that opens the way for the country's hopes of eventually joining the European Union amid a dispute with Bulgaria. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
People wave the old and the current national flags and chant slogans during a protest against the 'French proposal' in Skopje, North Macedonia on July 16, 2022 [File: AP/Boris Grdanoski]

Over the summer, a proposal by the European Union to resolve North Macedonia’s dispute with neighbouring Bulgaria, which had imposed a veto on its EU membership bid, caused much social upheaval in the Balkan country. The Macedonian opposition rejected what came to be known as the “French proposal” and called for mass demonstrations.

After the Macedonian government approved the proposal and Sofia lifted its veto, opposition parties declared that they will vote against changes in the constitution to accommodate the document’s provisions. In September, the opposition also announced it is seeking a referendum to cancel the 2017 Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations between the two countries, which was rejected by the parliament – for now.

That the opposition is taking advantage of the situation to seek political gain is understandable. But in its opposition to the “French proposal” and a resolution of the dispute with Bulgaria, it has been joined by the majority of the presumably progressive and pro-EU civil society.

This exposed the unsettling reality that the supposed proponents of EU integration are quite quick to give up on it and advocate for “alternatives” that most certainly would undermine North Macedonia’s democratic path and stability.

To understand the dangers of this situation, it is important to recall how North Macedonia got here. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, along 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, it received EU-candidate status. Yet due to disputes relating to its cultural heritage and national history with its EU neighbours, Greece and Bulgaria, it was left in the EU’s waiting room for almost 20 years, as the start of accession negotiations was delayed.

The dispute with Greece was resolved in 2018 with the signing of the so-called Prespa Agreement, which changed the name of the country to North Macedonia and confirmed its ethnic, cultural, linguistic and national identity rights. The 2017 Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations was supposed to set up a framework to resolve the dispute with Bulgaria on historical, linguistic and minority rights issues. In 2020, however, Sofia imposed a veto, citing a lack of compliance with the treaty. The move was likely an attempt by the government of Boyko Borisov to divert attention from a wave of protests calling for its resignation.

The insistence of Skopje’s neighbours to interpret what the national and ethnic identity of the Macedonians should be, while transforming the bilateral disputes into an unofficial condition for the country’s EU integration, has caused understandable frustration in the country.

But under current EU rules, each EU member has veto power on starting talks for the accession of non-EU states. France, Denmark and the Netherlands, for example, have also previously vetoed accession talks with North Macedonia.

Earlier this year, faced with Bulgarian intransigence on the veto and seeking to give new momentum to the EU’s expansion in the Western Balkans, Brussels, under the French presidency, put together a negotiating framework for Sofia and Skopje – what came to be known as the “French proposal”. The Bulgarian side agreed to it and lifted the veto, but the Macedonian opposition, including right-wing parties, such as VMRO-DPMNE, with proven ties to Hungarian strongman Viktor Órban, and the nationalist supposedly left-wing party named The Left (Levica) rejected it, seeing in it a host of concessions to Bulgaria on Macedonian identity issues.

I invite the reader to look at the document and be their own judge – it is a standard, sterile technocratic document requesting reconciliation between the two countries in the name of good neighbourly relations.

It makes a single reference to the friendship agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria as well as the Prespa Agreement. It makes clear that the rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia should be recognised, which would necessitate a constitutional amendment. This is the main Bulgarian demand.

True, the document also allows Bulgaria to unilaterally dispute 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 recognises the Macedonian language and the distinctness of the Macedonians’ national identity, which is fairly clear in the proposal.

Yet the opposition’s disinformation campaign against the document succeeded in drawing in supposedly “neutral” and pro-Western civil society organisations, which also raised the banners of “NO to [this] EU” and “NO to an EU that wants to render us Bulgarian”.

The latter slogan sounds comical, but it was used in all seriousness – numerous think-tanks have published numerous analyses of this sort. Some even started arguing publicly about alternatives to EU membership, such as Eurasian alignment and a regional arrangement along the borders of former Yugoslavia.

As it stands now, EU and US-funded think-tanks, academic institutions, and NGOs in North Macedonia do not back the recognition of the Bulgarian minority in the Macedonian constitution – with the exception of just a handful.

The Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, for example, has strongly rejected the “French proposal”. This is hardly surprising given that it is entrenched in an atavistic “national romanticism” similar to the one the Serbian Academy of Sciences embraced in the 1990s while supporting Slobodan Milosevic’s wars in former Yugoslavia.

Macedonian intellectuals and civil society siding with the nationalists have also encouraged some renowned foreign scholars and experts on Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans to assume that their position ought to be the right one. I have no other explanation but that my dear foreign colleagues who have taken the stand of “strong defenders of the Macedonians” have 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 beg to differ. The EU Council’s general position merely requires that the two neighbours settle their dispute but does not say how, not in terms of history. How is this “Bulgarisation” of any sort? Good neighbourly relations – thus regional stability – are an aspect of the Copenhagen Criteria for EU accession.

If North Macedonia pulls out of the treaty with Bulgaria after a referendum or does not fulfil its commitments to recognise the rights of the Bulgarian minority in the constitution, this would effectively block its accession to the EU. And it would not be Bulgaria imposing a veto. The EU Council itself would halt the process for lack of compliance with negotiations conditions outlined in the “French proposal” and abiding by provisions of the Copenhagen Criteria.

Evidently, we are facing growing xenophobia toward Bulgaria and the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, combined with rising Euro-scepticism, which is putting in danger the entire EU enlargement process. If it remains unaddressed, North Macedonia’s democratic path will be heavily undermined.

Given today’s geopolitical realities, non-alignment for small countries like North Macedonia is not a real option. Thus, Skopje has to choose between EU accession or Eurasian integration, ie alignment with Russia and China.

North Macedonia is surrounded by EU neighbour states and is also at the heart of a region that has suffered recent conflicts and remains volatile. In this context, alignment with non-EU geopolitical players can lead to regional instability that would affect the whole of Europe.

That is why the toxicity at the heart of the 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 zone established by Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania seeking to act as an ersatz-EU with its own “mini-Schengen” (open borders movement) may be helpful here if it opens up to its EU neighbours: Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.