EU flags in Brussels. Photo: EPA / EFE
Dashing hopes a date for the start of EU membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania could be set before the end of the year, EU foreign and EU ministers n ‘have yet to set a date, and have not given a specific timeline for when it might happen.
“The Council looks forward to the holding of the first intergovernmental conference [with Albania and North Macedonia] as soon as possible, ”read the vaguely worded conclusions on the enlargement of Tuesday’s General Affairs Council, which took place ahead of the European Council scheduled for Thursday.
Once again, the main reason for the delay, for a second year in a row, was Bulgaria’s blockade on the EU’s path from North Macedonia due to an unresolved historical and identity conflict.
Sofia insists that Skopje accept a de facto Bulgarian identity centered on the claim that the Macedonian identity and language are of Bulgarian origin.
Bulgaria has said it is not yet ready to lift the blockade of Skopje, suggesting instead that the North Macedonian and Albanian processes be separated, so that Albania can at least move forward. .
But the idea that the two countries should progress within the framework of a single package prevailed in the Council.
New Bulgarian Prime Minister promises new course
Meanwhile, the regime change in Sofia offers some hope for North Macedonia.
Bulgaria’s new Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who took office on Monday this week, told the Financial Time Tuesday that he wanted to restart talks with North Macedonia which could lead to a breakthrough in the next six months.
Petkov added that his aim is for Bulgaria to finally lift its blockade and realign itself with the rest of the EU countries when it comes to the EU enlargement process.
“We will put the talks with North Macedonia on a new basis,” he promised, explaining that his plan is to form new working groups between the two countries on issues not only related to history. but also to the economy, infrastructure and culture.
We will use working groups to seek solutions to issues such as joint economic activity, infrastructure, culture and history, ”said Petkov.
However, he said that North Macedonia must first amend its history textbooks and remove the phrase “fascist occupying force” when referring to Bulgaria’s occupation of present-day North Macedonia during the Second World War. Sofia claims the term promotes hatred.
Signaling his openness to Petkov’s idea, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski on Wednesday issued a positive note, stating that “the approach of the new Bulgarian prime minister, that history should not be the only one place of communication [between Skopje and Sofia] is acceptable to me ”.
Progress of Serbia and Montenegro hailed
In the context of its conclusions on enlargement, the Council also welcomed the progress of the negotiations for the accession to the EU of Serbia and Montenegro.
“The Council welcomes the overall progress made so far in the accession negotiations, with the 33 chapters under discussion open and 3 provisionally closed”, state the conclusions for Montenegro.
It was added that before going any further, Montenegro should meet “the provisional rule of law criteria set out in Chapters 23 and 24”.
As for Serbia, which has just opened the so-called Cluster 4 during the EU membership negotiations, which focuses on the Green Agenda and sustainable connectivity, the conclusions again welcome the progress .
However, they also stressed that the further progress of Serbia will depend on its performance on “the chapters on the rule of law and fundamental rights, as well as on the normalization of Serbia’s relations with Kosovo”.
In negotiations with the EU so far, Serbia has opened 22 chapters out of a total of 35, two of which have been temporarily closed.
Regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Council declared that it “deeply regrets the prolonged political crisis in the country, which has slowed down the pursuit of reforms in 2021, and condemns the blocking of state institutions”.
With regard to Kosovo, which, like Bosnia, is not yet a candidate, the Council welcomed the fact that the new government elected in March confirmed its strategic commitment to its European path and to the associated reforms.
The Council “underlines the urgent need for Kosovo to accelerate the reform processes, in line with European standards and with a view to acting in the interest of the citizens of Kosovo, taking into account the limited progress made so far”.
Regarding Turkey, the ministers welcomed its de-escalation with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, stressing that this “should be supported”. They reaffirmed the EU’s readiness to engage with Turkey in “a gradual, proportionate and reversible manner” in areas of common interest.