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Bulgaria blocks EU accession talks for North Macedonia

People wave Macedonian flags during a protest in a central square in Skopje on March 4, 2018
People wave Macedonian flags during a protest in a central square in Skopje on March 4, 2018 AFP/File
Text by: David Coffey with RFI
4 min

Bulgaria has blocked talks on North Macedonia's bid to join the European Union, with Sofia demanding Skopje rewrite its history books to highlight Bulgarian roots.

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Michael Roth, European Affairs Minister for Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, told a media conference "there was some open questions from the Bulgarian point of view that have to be clarified".

He and European counterparts discussed for nearly eight hours by videoconference a raft of issues, which included the European Union's aim to expand into the western Balkans by including North Macedonia and Albania.

However, Bulgaria's foreign minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, told journalists that her country was willing to open negotiations with Albania, but not with North Macedonia.

"Bulgaria doesn't support this stage of the accession framework with the Republic of North Macedonia and the holding of a first intergovernmental conference. The plan does not take into account Bulgarian demands and cannot be adopted," she said.

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic nevertheless expressed hope that "we are in the final stretch" on the frameworks putting those two countries' bids on track, after both carried out reforms to be seen as candidate members.

But Roth admitted two obstacles imposed by Bulgaria meant Germany's efforts to have the issue wrapped up by the end of the year had been thrown off course.

Bulgaria, he said, objected to the name North Macedonia -- which was decided last year after Greece refused "Macedonia", the same as one of its provinces -- rather than "the Republic of North Macedonia". 

It also rejected "a reference to the Macedonian language," which Sofia demands be recognised as a variant of Bulgarian.

Separately, Bulgaria is also riled by North Macedonia laying claim to pre-World War II figures that are common to both countries' history.

Given the stumbling blocks, "we felt that now is not the time" to refer the accession frameworks to an EU leaders' summit, Roth said.

Instead, he said they would act as mediators alongside the European Commission to try to work out a reasonable position.

Government sources in North Macedonia told local media that European integration "should not be a hostage of bilateral issues".

"EU negotiations cannot be transformed into negotiations with Bulgaria," the sources said.

North Macedonia's Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said Bulgaria was aware it was doing damage "to itself and to North Macedonia, to the enlargement process, but also to the credibility of the Union".

The two countries will, however, continue talks over the issue.

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