After the Western Balkans Meeting: There is Still 50% Chance of a Deal with Bulgaria
“You are a complete mess. Shame! Today is a good day in Europe, but not in Bulgaria.” This final assessment of the Albanian Prime Minister that there was no decision to lift the Bulgarian veto at the European Union-Western Balkans meeting today was repeated several times in front of journalists by Edi Rama.
The meeting ended as expected - without a decision by the leaders of the 27 countries to start negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and a conclusion by Reuters that their colleagues from the six countries of Southeast Europe had "left empty-handed".
In fact, this is not entirely true. Because the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, one of the most adamant opponents of enlargement in the current negotiation format, said that there is still 50-60 percent hope for a breakthrough next week, i.e. by the end of the French Presidency of the Council of the EU on 30 June.
"Nothing is easy in the Balkans, but in this case, they think we can see a 50 or 60 percent chance of a breakthrough next week," Mark Rutte was quoted as saying by Reuters about the dispute between Sofia and Skopje.
A European Council began in the evening in Brussels, at which leaders discussed whether to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, as recommended by the European Commission. Both countries applied less than four months ago (i.e. after the Russian invasion of Ukraine) and, according to Rutte, "there is enough progress for such a decision". "But for negotiations to begin, a lot of work still needs to be done. Georgia is one step behind them," he explained.
According to French President Emmanuel Macron, who is the rotating president of the EU Council, he told reporters after the meeting with the Western Balkans that it was "a little early" for an agreement between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
"The next hours and days will be important to see if we can reach such an agreement. It is too early," he said ahead of a meeting with leaders of the liberal European “Renew Europe” party group, which Bulgaria’s “We Continue the Change” party plans to join.
Apart from Edi Rama, after the meeting of the Western Balkans with the EU, the Prime Minister of North Macedonia also spoke sharply against Bulgaria. "I will be direct. What happened a while ago is a serious problem and a serious blow to the confidence in the European Union," Dimitar Kovachevski said. He declared unacceptable the proposal of the French presidency for a compromise that would satisfy the conditions of Bulgaria and start the membership negotiations.
"The current proposal is unacceptable to me, to the president, to the government, to the coalition partners, to the president, to the citizens of (North) Macedonia," Kovachevski said. “If an understanding of our positions is reached in the course of the French Presidency, we are prepared to engage in talks on them. According to him “we cannot stay stuck in this situation just because a country refuses to unblock ... we must not allow bilateral issues to become international”.
This means that Skopje rejects the plan in its original form - as it was submitted last week - even before it heard the Bulgarian position on it, which is still being drafted. But it does not close the door to compromise. In addition, the European Union is signaling with this project that the issue of the Macedonian language is not on the agenda in the discussions. And historical issues are not in themselves in the negotiating framework.
EU leaders reaffirmed at the meeting that they stand behind their promise made nearly two decades ago that Balkan countries will gain membership once they carry out deep economic, legal and political reforms. "The meeting clearly and unequivocally confirmed the European perspective for the Western Balkans and the future of this region in the EU," Reuters quoted an EU representative as saying.
EUractiv quoted an official EU source as saying that support for the Western Balkans continued, including with the provision of "concrete socio-economic benefits for the region's partners during the membership negotiations" and their gradual integration. "We are talking about the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, which will provide up to 30 billion euros in investment for economic recovery and catching up with the union's standards. Strategic projects to improve connectivity and sustainability of the region are also supported," he said. “Earlier this year, a package of 21 projects worth more than 3 billion euros began”, he added.
Prime Minister Petkov also signaled that there may be a decision to lift the veto by the end of the French presidency, but that depends on the parliament in Sofia, where the protocol with Skopje to the "French" plan must be approved. North Macedonia also needs to approve the package, but that does not seem certain at the moment.
Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was also asked about the chances for Bulgaria to adopt the plan in the coming hours and days. "There is still hope," he replied. "But I don't know what the Bulgarian parliament can do in the next few hours. Things are not going well, and we have to deal with the situation."
At a joint post-forum press conference, Kovachevski said Bulgaria has decided to return to a past that benefits no one but certain third countries that will take advantage to fill the gaps.
Eddie Rama continued his criticism of Bulgaria everywhere, incl. at the press conference, repeating the same message:
"It is a shame that a NATO member is taking hostage two other countries of the alliance at the moment of war in our backyard, and the other 26 EU countries are sitting helplessly and showing impotence. We do not feel like victims because we know that this way there is one Bulgaria here, another Bulgaria there, and at the same time not changing direction."
Regarding the expected recognition of candidate status for Ukraine, he said: "North Macedonia has been a candidate for 17 years, I lost count ... Albania is eight, so Ukraine is welcome, it is good to give candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people do not feed many illusions."
"Bulgaria is a disappointment, but it is not only Bulgaria. The reason is this dishonest spirit of enlargement, totally dishonest. Bulgaria is the clearest example. The spirit of enlargement has turned from a shared vision of an entire community into holding hostages of individual countries."
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