Bulgaria is latest block in North Macedonia's bid to join EU

North Macedonia, kept out of the European Union for years by a dispute with Greece, hit yet another hurdle this week when Bulgaria blocked its progress toward membership

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- It's not easy to plan your future in a region like the Balkans, where history often clouds the present.

One of Europe’s youngest nations, North Macedonia, spent years resolving differences with Greece that prevented it joining the European Union and NATO. This week, that path was blocked again, this time by another neighbor, Bulgaria.

The government in Sofia wants North Macedonia to formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots and to stamp out what it says is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric.

Launching accession talks with a prospective member country requires unanimous approval from all 27 EU nations. Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva told Bulgaria’s lawmakers that their country withheld its consent Tuesday because North Macedonia was not observing a 2017 bilateral friendship treaty and was fueling hatred through some of its policies.

“Hysteria has been whipped up in their media, fueled by open hate speech toward Bulgaria, and by branding anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion a traitor,” Zaharieva said.

“In effect, Skopje has continued its policy of maintaining unfounded claims about minority rights, history and language, among other matters,” Zaharieva said.

Bulgaria insists that instead of “Macedonian language” the formulation "the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia” should be used in the negotiating framework.

Sofia considers the language a dialect of Bulgarian, arguing that the official language of its neighbor was artificially created after 1944.

Bulgaria also wants a text in the roadmap to state that claims that there is a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria will not be supported in any form.

Zaharieva said Bulgaria wants legal guarantees before it will give the green light to membership negotiations that were slated to start next month.

North Macedonia says its national identity and language are not open to discussion. A commission of renowned historians from both countries has been working to resolve the standoff but has so far failed to find enough common ground to satisfy the two nations.

Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, has been an active supporter of letting in the six Western Balkan countries, believing it could help improve living standards and insulate the region against the influence of Russia and China.

North Macedonia’s government said Wednesday that it remains “committed to the European path.”

During times of tension, “European values need to be demonstrated. Dialogue instead of conflict,” government spokesman Dushko Arsovski told reporters. “Calmness and readiness for cooperation, instead of nationalism for domestic use and new isolation.”

North Macedonia, a country of 2 million, applied for EU membership in 2004 and received a positive response from the executive European Commission a year later. However, a long-running dispute over the country’s name — when it declared independence from Yugoslavia, it was called Macedonia, the same as a neighboring Greek province — kept Greece blocking the move for years. The dispute was resolved when the country was renamed North Macedonia early last year.

A year ago, France demanded a postponement in starting the talks, arguing that with Britain preparing to pull out of the EU and other pressing issues, the bloc had too much on its plate.

EU leaders finally agreed in March to begin the process for opening formal accession talks with both North Macedonia and Albania. But that can't happen for North Macedonia until Bulgaria is on board.

Officials from Germany, which currently holds the EU’s rotating EU presidency, said they hoped Bulgaria and North Macedonia will be able to find a compromise and the membership talks can begin before the end of the year.

Other Western Balkan countries are at varying stages of EU membership talks: Serbia and Montenegro have already started negotiating some chapters of the final deal; Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step on the path.

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Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed to this report.