EU Lack of Resolve Fuels Euroscepticism in Western Balkans – North Macedonia’s Premier

Politics | May 20, 2021, Thursday // 11:54
Bulgaria: EU Lack of Resolve Fuels Euroscepticism in Western Balkans – North Macedonia’s Premier

North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, has warned the EU that it’s taken a reputational hit in the Balkans and will lose more ground to rival powers if it doesn’t start membership talks with his country and Albania soon.

EU members agreed more than a year ago to start talks with the two countries but the process is on hold, mainly because Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia’s path to the negotiating table. The government in Sofia insists that bilateral disputes between Bulgaria and North Macedonia over language and history must be resolved before the talks can start.

Frustration with the EU in the region has been compounded by the bloc’s tardy progress in providing coronavirus vaccines to its Balkan neighbors, prompting them to turn to Russia and China for jabs instead.

“A lot of issues were not how our citizens expected and because of that Euroskepticism increases,” Zaev, a Social Democrat, told POLITICO in an interview.

Zaev said a failure to start talks would affect not just his country and Albania but also the wider Western Balkan region, which is now surrounded by EU members and was the scene of a series of wars in the 1990s as Yugoslavia was torn apart.

If the EU is not seen to keep its promises in the region, that would also give Kosovo and Serbia less incentive to resolve their differences in EU-sponsored talks and make it less likely Bosnia and Herzegovina will tackle the reforms necessary to seek its own membership negotiations, he argued.

And if the region’s journey toward the EU slows down, Zaev said, “there is more space” for other powers, citing Russia and China in particular.

Zaev also dismissed an idea floated by European Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi of moving ahead with membership talks for Albania while keeping North Macedonia on hold.

Zaev noted that the heads of the European institutions, as well as multiple EU member states, clearly stated in recent days that both countries should go forward together. Germany, Slovakia and Greece are among those to have made clear they do not share the Hungarian commissioner’s views

“There is a clear message of no decoupling and I hope that Bulgaria will be reasonable,” Zaev said.

Zaev suggested Várhelyi may have been trying to push North Macedonia and Bulgaria to reach an agreement to deal with Sofia’s objections. “I always believe in good intentions and I believe he wanted to put pressure on us and Bulgaria to find a solution, if possible,” he said.

He expressed optimism that an end to the stalemate with Bulgaria could be found, describing the problems between Sofia and Skopje as “not substantial.”

However, Bulgaria’s new caretaker government has warned that it lacks the authority to change the country’s stance. That would appear to further diminish the chances of the dispute being resolved before June, when the EU had pencilled in the start of accession talks.

Zaev said he hoped the most powerful Western governments, including President Joe Biden’s new U.S. administration, would help resolve the standoff.

If there is no breakthrough, he warned, the enlargement process will be frozen for at least a year and a half, while elections take place in Bulgaria and in big EU powers Germany and France.



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