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Helen Ainsley

February 6th, 2021

Difficult disputes: the struggle of North Macedonia’s accession into the European Union

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Helen Ainsley

February 6th, 2021

Difficult disputes: the struggle of North Macedonia’s accession into the European Union

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Written by: Pratham Maheshwari

In November 2020, Bulgaria refused to initiate the talks for the accession of the ‘candidate’ North Macedonia into the European Union (EU) due to identity disputes between the two countries. Although the decision was anticipated, it proved to be another barrier to the process of North Macedonia’s accession. Sofia presented a set of demands for Skopje to abide by. These included acknowledgment of the Bulgarian roots of the Macedonian language, thwarting the claim on the North Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and to end anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. A legal scapegoat could also be witnessed with regards to the implementation of the 2017 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness signed between Skopje and Sofia. 

This wasn’t the first time another country has questioned the identity of North Macedonia. It had already struggled for decades to get the consent from Greece to initialise the accession negotiations for both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

The prolonged conflict revolved around a region present in Greece which is also termed as ‘Macedonia’. This region is also considered an intrinsic element of Greek heritage due to its historic ties with Alexander the Great as his birthplace. Even with public opposition, this conflict finally came to an end with the ‘Prespa Agreement’, under the United Nations’ auspices, whose primary objective was the addition of the term ‘North’ in the name of ‘Macedonia’. Post ratification of the agreement, Athens allowed the bid of Skopje to join the EU as well as NATO. 

Along with fulfilling the conditionality of EU such as the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, and Visa liberalisation, the accession negotiations were delayed because of the EU’s internal issues. These included the migration crisis, Brexit, ‘enlargement fatigue’, COVID-19, terrorism, climate change and growing scepticism from Netherlands and France with respect to the fulfilment of EU’s principles by the candidate. 

It is clear that Skopje’s historical roots, culture and overall identity are persistently questioned, and the delay of accession negotiations has been evident for several years. This delay also subsists because North Macedonia carries immense importance for the EU. North Macedonia is a Western Balkan state and hence its membership would mean leverage in the Western Balkan region. It would aid in promulgating the tenets of the EU in the Western Balkan region and mitigate the existing influence of states such as Turkey, Russia and China. If not, then the security of the EU would also prove contentious as resentment towards EU nations, especially amongst the public in North Macedonia, would also grow eventually. 

Economically, the cross-border infrastructure promoting regional connectivity between Sofia and Skopje will be highly lucrative as Skopje and Sofia are the only two capitals of Europe without a railway link whereas, in 2018, Bulgaria was the third most important destination for North Macedonia’s exports. Promulgation of trade and investment, along with the EU’s funding, would be highly discernible and thus, modernise the economies of both the countries. 

Experts argue that 2020 was a suitable year for the beginning of accession talks due to Germany’s Presidency of the EU. Germany has a greater political influence than the subsequent Presidencies of Portugal and Slovenia and in 2022, it would be an ambitious expectation for France due to its upcoming domestic elections. 

The Right to Self-Determination, however, argues that the claims posed on the ancestral roots and language of North Macedonia are in evident violation of International Law as accordingly, it is the country’s own decision to determine their national identity, including their language. 

Bulgaria’s decision was altogether astonishing because, during its own EU’s Presidency in 2018, it was Bulgaria itself which had advocated and worked towards the EU Enlargement process. Some experts also argue that presenting a ‘veto’ is also a manoeuvre and cover-up for their domestic political challenges, currently guided by accusations of inefficient handling of the pandemic and frequent anti-corruption protests. It also reflects the irony of their decision as the European enlargement process was initiated to reduce the enmity amongst nations whereas, as mentioned previously, the ‘veto’ would stimulate this hatred. 

The EU has been distinctively known for its ideals upon which its evolution is built. The functioning of the EU has played a pivotal role over the years in establishing itself as a significant multilateral institute globally. Therefore, the EU has to play a decisive role in the process of North Macedonia’s accession. Germany, as the President of the Union, is saddled with undertaking the negotiations between both countries, and to resolve their disputes. It is imperative for the EU to limit the interplay of bilateral issues with the functioning of the EU in order to preserve its own ideals. The question of the intertwining of politics and national identity including ancestral roots, language, and the culture of any particular country is a question which also has to be addressed by the EU based upon its previous encounters with such situations. The settling of the Sofia-Skopje dispute and the structuring of a resilient bilateral relationship between the two countries would be the result of mutual endeavours to confront tough negotiations. North Macedonia, amassing significance because of its nature, has always been in the purview of the EU and hence, the accession of it will not be a refutable subject. 


Agon Demaja, ‘The Path of North Macedonia towards the European Union’, JUSTICIA – International Journal of Legal Sciences, 8(13-14) (2020), pp. 9-16 

Ilija Milchevski, ‘A requiem for a dream’, International Issues & Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs, 22(4) (2013), pp. 40-59 

Zhidas Daskalovski, ‘Republic of Macedonia or North Macedonia?’, Insight Turkey, 21(2) (2019), pp. 63-74

Maarten Lemstra, ‘The Destructive Effects of State Capture in the Western Balkans: EU Enlargement Undermined’, Clingendael Institute, (2020) 

Robert Manchin, ‘Balkan Public Opinion and EU Accession’, The Western Balkans and the EU: ‘The Hour of Europe’, (2011), pp. 163-172 

Daniel Boffey, ‘Mind our language: Bulgaria blocks North Macedonia’s EU path’, The Guardian, (2020) 

Goran Buldioski and Vessela Tcherneva, ‘How to advance a European solution to Bulgaria’s and North Macedonia’s dispute’, European Council on Foreign Relations, (2020) 

Una Hajdari, ‘Tongue-tied: Bulgaria’s language gripe blocks North Macedonia’s EU path’, POLITICO, (2020) 

Dimitar Bechev and Julian Popov, ‘Bulgaria’s standoff with North Macedonia is a lose lose’, POLITICO, (2020) 

Jacopo Barigazzi, ‘Bulgaria blocks EU membership talks for North Macedonia’, POLITICO, (2020) 

Tsvetelia Tsolova, ‘ Bulgaria blocks EU accession talks with North Macedonia’, Reuters, (2020) 

Georgi Gotev, Sarantis Michalopoulos and Zeljko Trkanjec, ‘Bulgaria spells out conditions for unblocking North Macedonia’s EU path’, EURACTIV, (2020) 

Alice Tidey, ‘Bulgaria is putting the brakes on North Macedonia’s EU dreams. Here’s why’, Euronews, (2020)

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Helen Ainsley

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