A fourth time in a row the EU member states will have to decide whether Macedonia should start accession negotiations. The European Commission made another recommendation with the annual progress report of Macedonia and even proposed an option to overcome the Greek veto over the negotiations until a solution is found to the name issue between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic. When presenting the reports from the enlargement package on October 10, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said that the Commission was ready to propose an "appropriate negotiations framework with Macedonia if the European Council recommended negotiations to start". In Commissioner Füle's words, that negotiation framework is directly bound to finding a solution to the name issue.
To a question of this website what exactly "appropriate" negotiations framework meant and whether the finding of a solution could be considered chapter one of possible accession negotiations, DG "Enlargement" of the Commission said that the current approach of seeking a solution to the name issue before starting accession negotiations has led to a stalemate. This is why a parallel approach is proposed - resolving the name issue in the early stages of the accession negotiations. For now, however, because of the sensitivity of the matter and because of the lack of opinion on behalf of the interested parties, the modalities that proposal to be implemented are still unclear. In case the member states accept the proposal, the Commission, through dialogue with the concerned parties, will define the criteria.
This, in any case, is a good news which creates hope that the long blocking of the European integration process of Macedonia might be close to an end. However, this does not reduce Skopje's challenges. On the contrary. Another neighbouring country to the former Yugoslav republic is beginning to formulate ever so clearer its discontent with the policy the government in Skopje leads. Bulgaria for years has been complaining from nationalist policies by the Macedonian government, from nationalistic and even insulting publications in Macedonian media, and also from "history theft". So far, Sofia has been applying the approach of the carrot, recalling a number of times that Bulgaria was the first country to recognise the independence of the Republic of Macedonia, moreover - by its constitutional name. Besides, Sofia always underscores that it supports the European perspective of its neighbour, although in the past years not that unconditionally as before.
But lately, there has been a change of approach. The government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has toughened tone and before the publication of the progress report of the European Commission Bulgaria sent specific remarks hoping them to be included in the text, especially in the part related to good neighbourly relations. Bulgaria expected "key" issues for the country to be taken into account in the report, like for instance the issue of good neighbourly relations, the attitudes toward Bulgarians in Macedonia and Bulgarian entrepreneurs. The text in the document shows that these remarks had not been taken into account: "There continue to be close ties with Bulgaria, notably in the economic sphere. Developments during the reporting period highlighted the need for more dialogue to overcome possible misunderstandings and different perceptions concerning historical, cultural and ethnicity based issues. Recent statements at the highest level have confirmed the willingness to move forward".
Bulgaria's disappointment that its remarks have not been taken into account led to a visit by EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle in Sofia last week. According to euinside sources, initially Bulgaria prepared for a tough tone in the discussions with Mr Füle, which was then softened. In a short statement for the media, Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said that he had informed Štefan Füle about the concerns of the Bulgarian society from the nationalistic policy of Skopje. In Mr Mladenov's words, Bulgaria walked its path of agreeing with neighbours on its path toward EU membership, which is something Macedonia should do as well. Bulgaria is working on a new strategy for its relations with its Balkan neighbours, which is expected to be published by the end of the year and to be subjected to broad public debates.
As part of the preparation of the strategy, Minister Mladenov has been for months holding a series of meetings with experts, journalists, local authorities and public figures in the border areas. On the presentation of the strategy, especially its part for Macedonia, and the public debates that will take place in Parliament, will depend what position Bulgaria will take when the progress reports from the enlargement package are voted upon at the December European Council. For now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is refraining from saying whether Bulgaria would vote against the report, which would practically reject the Commission proposal for a start of accession negotiations with Macedonia, or whether it would put forward a condition the country to have fulfilled the criteria for good neighbourly relations before that.
For its part, Macedonia continues to state its desire to build "bridges of friendship and cooperation" with the neighbouring countries. During a meeting last week with EU's ambassador in Skopje Aivo Orav, Macedonia's Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said that "it is of exceptional importance that the relations between the countries in the region and regional cooperation be focused on matters that help improve connections and have a practical bearing on improving the citizens’ quality of life". Something which his counterpart Nickolay Mladenov fully agrees with, judging from his meetings in the border areas. And in a letter from November 2nd to his Bulgarian opposite number, Nikola Poposki writes: "We are both partners and friends, sharing a vision for a European roadmap", that should include respect for each other’s sensitivity to certain issues; history to be left to historians; development of a sincere and consistent policy of good neighbourly relations.
Judging from Commissioner Füle's statement, for now Bulgaria's objections are met only with understanding, not with support. For the media in Sofia last week, he said that he had very a "frank and constructive discussion" with Minister Mladenov, and before that with President Rossen Plevneliev and with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, with members of Parliament as well. Right after these introductory remarks, however, he said: "The European Union is still facing consequences of the economic and financial crisis, and in response is addressing its problems and is deepening its integration". According to Štefan Füle, enlargement is part of the solution, not part of the problem and this is why it is very important to keep the momentum of reforms. Bulgaria, Mr Füle deems, is a key country for the enlargement in the region of the Western Balkans because of its "experience with successful transition and its unique geographic position". Bulgaria is a precious example for the countries in the region, which aspire for EU membership.
"We understand that Bulgaria has concerns in this respect. But Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have strong and deep ties and we are convinced both countries can address and solve any open issues in a good neighbourly spirit based on the EU values and we are also making this point in our contacts with Macedonian authorities", Štefan Füle added. To move forward with accession negotiations boosts reforms, encourages inter-ethnic relations and creates an appropriate environment for the development and strengthens the good neighbourly relations, the EU commissioner added. The entire construction of his statement shows very clearly what the European Commission priorities are - at the moment the EU is facing tough challenges and a new change of its architecture. Enlargement is indeed an important priority for the EU but it is definitely preferable if it does not create additional problems.
Any attempts of member states to twist the hands of potential candidates are more and more disliked in Brussels, no matter how justified they might be on a national or regional level. The EU thinks globally and relies that the member states will act locally, abiding with the Union's major priorities. This is why Bulgaria and Macedonia are expected to solve their problems together and mainly on their own. This would be a civilisational choice for Macedonia which cannot shake off from the need to provoke its neighbours in order to identify itself, but this will also be a matriculation for Bulgaria as well, which has been a member of the EU for five years and which, although Commissioner Füle politely called an example of successful transition for the region, should never forget that it still is with a monitoring mechanism in a tough for reforming area - the judiciary. A mechanism that will preordain its relations not only with its neighbours but with the partners as well and the institutions in the EU.