Last week witnessed an emotional rollercoaster for the Balkans. On the one hand, the meeting of the EU Council drew near, in which leaders of Albania and N. Macedonia finally hoped to secure a green light to begin negotiations over EU accession. Yet it soon became apparent that their hopes would be dashed. The main stumbling block was the Bulgarian veto. This had been hanging over Skopje's bid to join the EU from 2020 and has practically thwarted Tirana's own application process, too, since the two Balkan capitals' bids have been packaged together by the EU. The veto was not being removed, which infuriated Albanian leader Edi Rama, who said that the expansion of the EU had been "hijacked" by Bulgaria.
At the same time, simple rumors about the possible dropping of the veto in Sofia served as a propaganda tool for anti-government forces and even contributed to the fall of the Petkov cabinet. The hardliners who were hoping N. Macedonia would capitulate to Bulgarian demands - and effectively cede part of their national identity in the process - opposed any possibility of agreement between the two states in the near future. The EU-sponsored consensus contained in the "French proposal" was branded a "foreign" dictat over Bulgaria and loudly dismissed as "treachery," "a blank check" and more by those who simply didn't want the N. Macedonian question solved for their own reasons.
In fact, the proposal of the French Presidency of the EU has largely catered to Bulgarian interests and, what is more, integrated member state demands in the EU negotiating framework with a candidate state.
In the end, with the helpful hand of GERB leader Boyko Borissov (albeit likely forced by his EPP partners), Parliament managed to back a declaration that untied the hands of the executive branch to finally lift the veto on Friday. This, however, is not the end of the story of the Bulgarian veto, but rather a temporary pause. In order for the "French" proposal to be implemented, it first has to be signed by the Foreign Ministers of the two countries, and then kick off processes in both Sofia and Skopje, which is far from certain. But before we get to the future of the veto issue, we need to understand where it came from:
How we entered the Macedonian quagmire
Bulgaria's main dissatisfaction with their Macedonian counterparts (at least officially) is the non-implementation of the 2017 Good Neighborhood Treaty. Those who have read it remember it is thin on detail. In its 14 articles, there is not much depth and specificity regarding the demands and obligations of the individual parties. The most specific part is the creation of a joint expert commission to try to resolve historical and educational disputes - such as determining the national identity of XX c. revolutionary Gotse Delchev and Medieval ruler Tsar Samuil as Bulgarian and the content of Macedonian textbooks about the pre-1945 period.
It was clear from the start that the work of these commissions would not be easy. Unraveling years of stereotypes and reaching a compromise (on both sides) is a complex task that becomes impossible when politics intervenes. The committees moved slowly and sluggishly, with most impediments coming from the Macedonian side. That is why the Bulgarian veto, which was imposed in 2020 because of the "non-fulfilment of the treaty", did not help the historians much, who, among other things, had to work within a deadline. In fact, to a large extent it can be said that at the beginning the veto was an initiative of a small circle of diplomats in the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry who had been dissatisfied with the lack of reciprocity in Skopje for years.
Things get even more complicated
Stopping a country on its way to the EU because you can't agree on its history (plus dissatisfaction over its non-compliance with an overly generalized treaty) was impossible to explain to the French and Germans or the Austrians and Czechs and could hardly serve as an excuse for a veto. The malchance was even greater as the head of diplomacy at the time was Ekaterina Zaharieva, someone who many in the Foreign Ministry remember with trepidation and who, in the words of several senior diplomats, is not particularly good at articulating complex diplomatic positions.
Hence, for more than a year, no one in the EU could understand what exactly Bulgaria wanted, while the Macedonian side skilfully campaigned to defend its position. The result was that Sofia fell into almost complete isolation.
Then the government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov fell and President Rumen Radev took the reins. He decided that the N.Macedonia issue and the veto were the holy grail of Bulgarian foreign policy. What is worse - he added new conditions that had little to do with the treaty - the demand for including Bulgarians in the country's constitution, for example. Bulgaria was speaking more and more vaguely, but was thumping louder and louder. Germany, which held the presidency of the EU at the time, gave up trying to convince Sofia and the desperation in the Western Balkans became palpable. Zoran Zaev fell from power in N.Macedonia and Dimitar Kovachevski took over. In Bulgaria, the cabinet of Kiril Petkov arrived.
Paris offers a hand
Then the Ukraine war broke out. Suddenly it became twice as important to provide the Western Balkans with a clearer EU perspective, as they have long been the focus of Russian interests. French President Emmanuel Macron took it on himself to try to address the problem of Sofia and Skopje.
It should be noted that French diplomats have done a lot of work. The proposal, approved last Friday by the National Assembly, marks serious progress. The joint declaration says that negotiations will begin once Skopje changes its constitution - something on which there was no agreement just six months ago. In the negotiating framework, however, a special paragraph has been added which says that North Macedonia's progress will also be measured against the implementation of the bilateral treaty and its protocol.
This is remarkable, first, because the European institutions are doing something that two years ago the German Foreign Minister bluntly called impossible - they are bringing a bilateral issue into the general EU membership negotiations. And second, because unlike the treaty, there are specific commitments in the protocol. This protocol must be signed before any decision is taken. Bulgaria, in other words, has secured a visible victory in its great battle for recognition.
Tough luck, once again
The Bulgarian-Macedonian negotiations, however, fell victim to unfortunate timing. The EU Council this week coincided with the no confidence vote against the Petkov cabinet. One of the official reasons for the vote was precisely the position on N. Macedonia and Slavi Trifonov's claim that Petkov was ready to "betray" Bulgarian interests.
This vague accusation was never fleshed out. But the upshot was that the government steadfastly refused to deal with the issue and referred it to parliament. It had to make a decision under a crossfire coming from Trifonov and President Radev, who kept claiming that had there been no criteria, deadlines or mechanisms in the protocol, the new push would have died quickly.
But this time external factors intervened. In recent weeks, Democratic Bulgaria tried to enlist GERB support for lifting the veto. These negotiations would probably not have borne any fruit were it not for outside pressure. A Capital weekly source confirmed that GERB leader Borissov had held talks "at the highest level" in the EPP, where he was likely told that his party's European legitimacy was at stake if it rejected the proposal.
It is not clear whether this pushed the former PM to promise support for the motion, but Mr Borissov made an almost schizophrenic speech in which he simultaneously attacked Kiril Petkov ("a coward and a liar") and offered him support ("there will be 59 [GERB] MPs for giving the green light"). The man whose government imposed the veto managed to present himself as the one responsible for lifting it, not without help from WCC.
In a state of uncertainty before the no-confidence vote, and following the adamant reluctance of Assen Vassilev and Kiril Petkov to table a motion for a vote in parliament, MPs in the ruling party proved unable to make a quick decision. WCC handed the initiative to GERB and MRF, which submitted proposals for lifting the veto in the National Assembly. After long arguments, it was only on Thursday evening that it became clear that there would be some unification around a common declaration introduced by Democratic Bulgaria. This, it seems, will be one of the last acts of this Parliament.
It is also possible that none of this will work and that it will all fall apart again. The Macedonian government's rejection of the French proposal (and, presumably, the protocol to it) will also put a spoke in the wheels.
But for the first time in years, this hostage drama finally had the prospect of ending. That would have allowed Bulgarian foreign policy to take a breath, the Macedonian government to deal with one of the many problems it has to solve, and the European Commission to do what it does best - negotiate and monitor results. Now the ball is in Skopje's court - and its political class will have to play it well if it really wants to get into the EU.
Parliament's decision on Friday to pass the "French proposal" opens the door to Bulgaria lifting the veto over N. Macedonia's EU accession, but is only the first step towards that end. Here is what has to happen on both sides of the border from now on:
- In Bulgaria, the parliamentary decision serves as a green light for the Council of Ministers and hence the Foreign Ministry to approve the proposal. The Bulgarian government has to approve the draft negotiating framework and Council conclusions proposed by the French presidency and signals have been given that this could happen as early as next week.
- Skopje, in principle, has no right to object to the negotiating framework, but it is discussing with Paris the possibility for adjustments, which must be agreed with Sofia and other members. The guarantees sought by N. Macedonia are largely enshrined in the proposed draft. Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani did not rule out accepting the "French" proposal, but is waiting to see its "final" version after Skopje's comments were sent.
- The approval of the negotiating framework should formally be done by all countries in the EU, and there is currently no opposition to that motion. Welcoming Bulgaria's decision, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that "there is more work to be done", but "the machine has been activated" and the work of the presidency continues with negotiations with Sofia and Skopje in the coming days to quickly formalize the decision. The next European Council is scheduled for 20-21 October.
- The time window of three months would give an opportunity to clarify the demands for adjustments on both the Bulgarian and the Macedonian side. However, the French presidency is working to reach an agreement within a month. This time could also be used for the signing of the bilateral protocol by Sofia and Skopje, but its text needs to be agreed to the last letter.
- In any case, together with this approval, a Political Intergovernmental Conference should be convened, at which both the negotiating framework and the Council conclusions should be formally presented to N. Macedonia for adoption. Skopje needs to launch the process of Constitutional change that will see Bulgarians included in the preamble of the Constitution, then a second intergovernmental conference ought to take place and the real EU negotiations can finally start.