In early 2020, Croatia’s EU presidency managed to renew its policy of integrating the Western Balkans. This happened after the acceptance of the French conditions for the negotiations to be reversible, with the candidate countries meeting the standards for the rule of law from the very beginning. The European Commission announced as a priority the start of membership talks with the Republic of Northern Macedonia and Albania. Bulgaria welcomed this and linked the process to the achievement of tangible results by North Macedonia on the implementation of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation between the two countries from 2017. It was stated that Albania wwas to monitor the rights of the Bulgarian national minority in the country.
The German presidency called for negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia to begin by the end of 2020. The EU warned in June that it would not mediate the dialogue between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, that good neighbourly relations and regional co-operation remained essential elements of the enlargement process. There were high hopes that the joint Bulgarian-Macedonian presidency of the Berlin Process would create a positive atmosphere for resolving the case. ()
Yet the forum’s leadership meeting in Sofia in November ended with the signing of a declaration on the creation of a Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans and a Declaration on the Green Agenda. A breakthrough in Bulgarian-Macedonian relations was not achieved and in December Bulgaria vetoed the technical beginning of North Macedonia’s EU integration. More on the conclusions of the European integration of the Western Balkans in 2020 in the interview with Assoc. Prof. Spas Tashev*:
“Candidate countries must also meet certain membership criteria. It is obvious that they are quite far from meeting them”, comments the researcher and expert on the Balkan region in an interview with Radio Bulgaria. “Even Serbia which has been negotiating with the EU for more than 8 years does not open new chapters. Others, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo are even further behind. We need to prepare for a long process, first to prepare for the start of negotiations, and then for conducting the negotiations themselves”.
In the outgoing year, under the pretext that elections were to take place in the Republic of North Macedonia, the Joint Commission on Historical Affairs
<p>from the side of North Macedonia came out with the argument that it was waiting for a mandate to continue the negotiations. One year was lost. The upcoming elections in Bulgaria are yet another straw that might be grabbed by Skopje to postpone the resumption of talks. It is a fact that there are still violations of the human rights of the citizens in the Republic of North Macedonia, who, despite the repressions, have preserved their Bulgarian self-consciousness. I think that when these facts reach our partners, they will think twice whether they will lightly support Skopje."</p> <p><b>Is there a useful move?</b> Bulgaria should look for an ally in the presentation of its thesis on the case with the European integration of North Macedonia and in the first place these are the citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia, according to Assoc. Prof. Tashev:</p> <p>"I have lived in Skopje for 4 years. There is a multi-layered self-consciousness in North Macedonia, even an identity crisis. Many people are wondering what the messages from Bulgaria are, which will be, if not well received, then at least received with interest. <b>In any case, Bulgaria must strengthen its work among the Bulgarian community in the Republic of North Macedonia and the descendants of the old Bulgarian-Macedonian emigration to the United States and Canada</b>. It should also promote the creation of objective, civil society-controlled media in the country without fake news”.</p> <p><b><i>In negotiations with the EU, Albania is bound to the Republic of North Macedonia. Can this change?</i></b></p> <p>"I think the first signal came from Sofia, when our authorities said that Albania was meeting the criteria whereas Skopje had not met them, which is why we are saying yes to Albania, and we are saying 'no' to North Macedonia start negotiations. Attention must be paid to the Albanian factor in the Balkans, which is not united. There is a great difference in political influence from Tirana and from former Yugoslavia. The key to stability in the region is the integration of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania /i.e. of the countries of the European Corridor 8, but with mutual respect for our common interests."</p> <p><b><i>Does the lack of reforms or the Kosovo issue determine the course of Serbia’s European integration?</i></b></p> <p>"The Kosovo issue is like a millstone around the neck of Serbian politicians," says Assoc. Prof. Tashev. “It will be very difficult for Serbs to break their emotional strands with Kosovo. From this point of view, the processes in Serbia and Macedonia, as successor states to the post-Yugoslav space, are similar. In both countries, we have seen political elites say they want EU membership, but in practice they were working in a completely different direction”.</p> <p><b><i>What is the worst-case scenario for the Western Balkans in 2021?</i></b></p> <p>"The worst-case scenario is a passive Bulgarian policy that runs after the events and does not generate political knowledge," the analyst concludes. "The goal of the Bulgarian foreign policy should not be to isolate North Macedonia from such a negotiating integration process, but rather to create such conditions under which the negotiation process could start while Bulgaria’s national interests are also achieved."</p> <p><i>* Assoc. Dr. Spas Tashev graduated from the Diplomatic Institute at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of National and World Economy. He is the founder and first director of the Bulgarian Cultural Information Center in Skopje and a former deputy chairman of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad. He has a doctorate in statistics and demographics from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He has defended a dissertation on "Demographic perspectives of Bulgaria and immigration policy." He has participated in the updates of the Strategy for Demographic Development of Bulgaria. He is the author of a number of books and scientific articles.</i></p> <p>English Rossitsa Petcova </span>