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PoliticsNorth Macedonia

North Macedonia and the EU — the Theater of the Absurd

Boris Georgievski, Leiter DW Mazedonisch
Boris Georgievski
July 19, 2022

After waiting for 17 years, North Macedonia has taken the next step toward EU membership. The fact that no one is celebrating is due to the absurd conditions that await the Balkan country, writes Boris Georgievski.

Protesters in Skopje holding up signs that read "No"
There is plenty of anger about the concessions North Macedonia has had to make to Bulgaria in order to begin the process of EU accession talksImage: Petr Stojanovski/DW

In the words of Eugene Ionesco, "absurd is that which has no purpose, or goal, or objective." The Theater of the Absurd literary movement, whose most prominent representative is the Romanian-French writer, currently serves as the best description of the relations between North Macedonia and the European Union. 

In the complicated relationship between the two, absurdity not only has no objective, but the purpose of joining the EU has been reduced to absurdity. It sounds complicated, and indeed it is.  

The highest representatives of North Macedonia and the EU held their first Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels on Tuesday. Four more countries — Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania — are in the formal process of negotiations to join the bloc and have held Intergovernmental Conferences. 

However, North Macedonia, which became an EU candidate country in 2005, will not start negotiations after Tuesday's meeting. Unlike the others, North Macedonia has embarked on what the formal Brussels dictionary describes as the beginning of the process of opening negotiations. 

In order to open negotiations, the country must first change its constitution and include the Bulgarian minority as a constituent part of it. But in the Macedonian parliament, there is no two-thirds majority in favor of taking that step. Aside from the nationalist opposition, many pro-Western intellectuals and politicians believe that this will only kindle further expectations and demands in Sofia. 

Bulgaria's demands on North Macedonia

Boris Georgievski, head of DW's Macedonian Service
Boris Georgievski, head of DW's Macedonian ServiceImage: Petr Stojanovski/DW

What's in dispute is not just the issue of changing the constitution to accommodate Bulgarian interests, but everything else that Bulgaria demands from its Balkan neighbor.  

The majority of Macedonians in North Macedonia are offended because Bulgaria does not recognize them as a nation and does not recognize their language. With the help of France and other European countries, Bulgaria managed to impose its interpretation of the historical events as a de facto condition for North Macedonia's progress in the Negotiating Framework, the basic document and roadmap for the negotiations with the EU. 

The term "absurd" can be applied to the Negotiating Framework. In it, a Bulgarian unilateral declaration claims that the Macedonian language does not exist, and that it is actually a dialect of the Bulgarian language. There are similar requests regarding historical figures, from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 20th century, in the textbooks in North Macedonia. Bulgaria insists that kings and revolutionaries from those periods should be identified as ethnic Bulgarians. 

Bulgaria has not tried to hide its agenda. During his visit to Berlin in May, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said: "We will not allow 'Macedonianism' to be legitimized in the EU." Bulgaria's official policy describes "Macedonianism" an ideology that, after World War II, "artificially" and forcibly turned Bulgarians into Macedonians. This position would rather foolishly assume that throughout history, especially in Europe, there are nations and languages that have been created "naturally."  

An adversary or a partner for the EU? 

Four people standing in front of an EU flag clasping their hands together
How much does North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski (second left) really have to smile about?Image: Dursun Aydemir/AA/picture alliance

Due to this historical dispute, Bulgaria has since 2019 repeatedly vetoed the beginning of North Macedonia's accession negotiations with the EU. Now the EU has come up with what it calls a "European compromise" — a proposal that turns the bilateral dispute between the two Balkan neighbors into an EU problem. 

When Macedonia was renamed North Macedonia in 2018 to satisfy Greek demands, which, like Bulgaria's, encroached on history and identity, the country was promised that the road to the EU was open. Now, nobody believes in such assurances anymore.

Brussels had hoped that starting the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania would show its commitment to the Western Balkans countries and raise its image while simultaneously curtailing Russia's influence. But the result is a dramatic rise in anti-European sentiments in North Macedonia and an increase in the popularity of a pro-Russian party in the country. 

Both the EU and North Macedonia have now reached a dead end. If North Macedonia wants to continue on its European path, it would have to agree to the humiliating Bulgarian demands. 

Essentially, North Macedonia's choice is not to negotiate on identity issues and never enter the EU, or to accept that its citizens will never enter the EU as Macedonians with their Macedonian language. If the EU continues supporting such demands, it could soon have another adversary instead of a partner in Europe.  

Balkan states: Frozen on the EU waiting list?