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PoliticsNorth Macedonia

North Macedonia: How long before it can join the EU?

Thomas Brey
August 30, 2023

North Macedonia has been waiting since 2005 for EU accession negotiations to begin. Greece finally lifted its veto in 2019, but Bulgaria continues to throw a spanner in the works.

The flags of North Macedonia (left) and the EU are seen in a glass on a table with flowers in the background, Skopje, North Macedonia, July 20, 2022
So near but yet so far: While EU accession negotiations have officially begun, real discussions have yet to begin in earnestImage: Government of North Macedonia

North Macedonia's path to EU membership has been anything but smooth so far.

First it was its southern neighbor, Greece, that stopped its progress toward EU membership by vetoing the start of accession negotiations. After a dispute lasting over 25 years, Skopje agreed to change the country's name from Macedonia to North Macedonia. Greece responded by lifting its veto, paving the way for North Macedonia to become a member of NATO in 2020.

But the road to EU membership is still not open: North Macedonia's eastern neighbor, Bulgaria, has long been placing obstacles in its path. It wants North Macedonia to re-interpret its history in a way that is acceptable to Bulgaria. It also claims that Macedonian is not a separate language, but a western Bulgarian dialect.

Finally, it is insisting that the 3,000 members of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia are mentioned as one of the country's "constitutive peoples" in the Macedonian constitution. For its part, however, Bulgaria refuses to accept that there is a Macedonian minority within its borders.

North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski stands at a lectern at a reception marking the official start of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia, Skopje, North Macedonia, July 20, 2022
North Macedonia's PM Dimitar Kovachevski hopes parliament will approve an amendment to the constitution so that Bulgaria will stop blocking its neighbor's path to the EUImage: Government of North Macedonia

Serbia also has a bone to pick with North Macedonia because it recognizes the former Serbian province of Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008, as a sovereign state.

Real negotiations yet to begin

In short, despite many encouraging speeches and rallying calls from Western politicians over the years, North Macedonia remains at the mercy of international politics. No other official EU candidate has had to wait so long for accession negotiations to begin.

While the Intergovernmental Conference on the Accession of North Macedonia in July 2022 marked the official start of negotiations, meaningful discussions, where both sides really get down to brass tacks, have not yet taken place because of Bulgaria's obstruction.

Parliament debates Bulgarian demand

This month, the parliament in Skopje spent days debating Bulgaria's demand that the small Bulgarian minority be mentioned in the Macedonian constitution. Because the opposition is refusing to support the proposal, the government does not have the two-thirds majority needed to pass the change.

The opposition claims that this is not only about the amendment of the constitution, but also about re-writing schoolbooks and the fact that the country's language, identity and history are all being called into question. It says that Bulgaria ultimately wants to dominate North Macedonia one way or another.

Hristijan Mickoski gestures as he speaks into a microphone, Skopje, North Macedonia, June 18, 2022
Macedonian opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski refuses to support the proposed constitutional amendment and wants early elections to be calledImage: Petr Stojanovski/DW

A parliamentary vote on the proposed constitutional amendment has been postponed for the time being.

Opposition rejects 'dictated constitutional amendment'

Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the main opposition party in North Macedonia, the nationalist-conservative VMRO-DPMNE, recently took things up a notch: "This dictated constitutional amendment cannot be," he told the Belgrade-based newspaper Politika on Monday, adding that "elections are now the only option left open."

Mickoski is adamant that voters will have to decide whether to amend the constitution.

According to the popular online portal A1on, the government could theoretically use parliamentary rules of procedure to delay the vote until the end of its term in the summer of 2024. The government may be hoping that this will give it the time it needs to bring on side the eight remaining opposition lawmakers needed to pass the amendment.

Reforms blocked by stalemate

This domestic stalemate is blocking key reforms in several important areas and causing disappointment and frustration across the country.

Just a few days ago, the newspaper Vecer reminded its readers that an amendment of the constitution to include the Bulgarian minority is not the most important issue: "The top national priority is a country with a strong economy, low corruption, good health care and education and that is governed by the rule of law."

Pensioners hold up placards and flags during a protest about low pensions, Skopje, North Macedonia, August 14, 2023
While politicians focus on Bulgaria and the EU, other vital reform projects stagnate: Pensioners protested low pensions in the Macedonian capital Skopje earlier this monthImage: Petr Stojanovski/DW

But instead of tackling these issues, the government and opposition parties are accusing each other of driving the country to the brink with corruption, media censorship and control of the judiciary.

Stagnation causes emigration

A general feeling of stagnation and helplessness seems to have gripped the people of North Macedonia. Most speak of domestic politics with profound contempt. And hardly anyone has anything good to say about the EU any more or expects anything positive to come out of Brussels.

Those who can, look for work abroad. The exodus from North Macedonia is staggering: In recent years, the population has shrunk by 10% to about 1.8 million.

No solution in sight

But why is a wide range of parties in Bulgaria so fixated on its small western neighbor? The reason is clearly linked to the fragile domestic political situation in Bulgaria.

There have been no less than five parliamentary elections in Bulgaria in the past two years, and the coalition government that emerged from the last election in April 2023 is anything but stable.

It is made up of two incompatible partners: The conservative Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, and the liberal pro-reform, anti-corruption alliance led by We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB). These two polar opposites agreed to a system of rotating prime ministers to make the coalition possible.

The role of North Macedonia in Bulgarian politics

In the face of such political fragility, most politicians are only too delighted to have a major common, national issue — like North Macedonia — to rally around.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (left) and Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski greet each other with broad smiles, Skopje, North Macedonia, January 18, 2022
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (left) sought to end decades of dispute between the two neighboring countries last yearImage: Reg. Nordmazedonien

This is not the first time North Macedonia has played a major role in Bulgarian politics: When former Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov (PP) sought rapprochement with North Macedonia 18 months ago, President Rumen Radev blocked his efforts.

Will Bulgaria keep its word?

Even though the vast majority of foreign legal experts and historians take North Macedonia's side in this stand-off, the EU wants the Western Balkan country to change its constitution to take EU member Bulgaria's wishes into account.

Gabriel Escobar, the US's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Balkan policy, announced during a recent visit to Skopje that Bulgarian Foreign Minister and future Prime Minister Marija Gabriel had assured him that Bulgaria will not make any new demands beyond the constitutional change.

Nevertheless, even if North Macedonia does succeed in resolving its domestic dispute about an amendment to the constitution, it is uncertain whether its unpredictable neighbor will abandon its veto position.

Failure to do so would plunge North Macedonia into an even deeper crisis and rob the EU of the last remnants of its credibility in the region. It could also lead to new, perilous tension in this part of Europe.

This article was originally published in German.