Mind our language: Bulgaria blocks North Macedonia’s EU path

A row over the historical roots of North Macedonia’s language has led to Bulgaria blocking talks over the newly renamed country’s accession to the EU.

During discussions by EU ministers on Tuesday, Bulgaria raised its opposition citing a failure of its neighbour to respect a shared history. It wants official EU documents to avoid mention of the “Macedonian language”, which it insists derives from Bulgarian.

North Macedonia – which added “North” to its name in February to satisfy the Greeks as part of its successful efforts to join Nato – has also fallen foul of Bulgaria’s demand for guarantees that it will not support any claims for a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.

The development will be a huge source of frustration in Skopje, the former Yugoslav republic’s capital.

It had been hoped that EU membership talks would follow soon after joining Nato but after a videoconference meeting of EU ministers, Ekaterina Zaharieva, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, said her government would not back the opening of talks, which had been due to begin at an intergovernmental conference next month.

“Bulgaria, at this stage, cannot back the draft of the negotiation framework with the Republic of North Macedonia,” she said.

Germany’s EU affairs minister, Michael Roth, said the issue would not be sent to the 27 heads of state and government for discussion but he hoped a “reasonable solution” would be found bilaterally.

“There can be bilateral conflicts with North Macedonia and Bulgaria, for example, and also issues of importance with central and eastern Europe,” he said. “We want to be helpful and we want to clear the path as much as possible so we can start on the intergovernmental conference.

“They have already done a lot and they have their claims. They want to be part of this European community. It is a long, difficult path but it has to get started with negotiations.”

As Macedonia, the country applied for EU membership in March 2004 and it was given candidate status the following year. The European commission has recommended opening accession talks since 2009.

North Macedonia is now expected to offer further guarantees to Bulgaria that it will deliver on a 2017 friendship treaty with Sofia that deals with the thorny historical issues.

The European commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, said it was important to move the accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania to show that the EU was open to enlargement.

He said: “Efforts need to be redoubled. We want the intergovernmental conference to take place as soon as possible.”