While no decisions on EU Enlargement emerged from the European Council and Euro Summit meetings of December 10-11, the issue blocking further progress pertains to North Macedonia, not Albania.
Although Germany’s Presidency of the EU Council ends next week, the energy and political capital expended in various last-minute attempts to resolve the treatment of the language dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia in EU Enlargement documents were clearly insufficient. We learned in the last few days that a text circulated by the German Presidency in the hope of reaching an agreement before the Euro Summit was vetoed by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, blocking any further progress this year.
The objections from Prague and Bratislava, but apparently not from Sofia, was that the compromise language under review (regarding EU Enlargement Conclusions) would allow the injection of historical criteria, and the concept of “falsifying history,” into the EU Enlargement process.
In a joint statement justifying their position, the Czech Republic and Slovakia noted “We will not allow the (European) Union to be the judge of our shared history, how we identify ourselves, or the language we use. These issues belong to the parties concerned and we are here to support them.” From the shared history of those two countries as the country once called Czechoslovakia, this perspective is somewhat understandable. But does the same logic apply in the Balkans?
In any event, it seems as if Bulgaria’s deeply entrenched and almost frozen position on North Macedonia and the “Macedonian” language was beginning to warm in the run-up to the European Council meeting/Summit and that a solution might well be found in the next months as Portugal assumes the Council Presidency.
The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on December 17, regarding the EU Council’s failure to reach agreement on a path forward for Enlargement. “The ЕU Council conclusions on Enlargement (note: these were not issued) have nothing to do with the process of approving the negotiation frameworks for the Republic of Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia. Bulgaria welcomes the negotiation framework for Albania, and welcomes the additional time provided to improve the framework for the Republic of North Macedonia.”
This perspective apparently leaves the window open for the immediate launch of Enlargement negotiations with Albania, assuming dates and a formal agreement could be approved to hold the required “intergovernmental conference” needed to formally begin the lengthy accession process with any potential new member. A number of EU member states believe Albania will face greater challenges than North Macedonia in concluding the accession negotiations, so time should not be wasted.
Another question remains, and that is what would be the impact on North Macedonia’s political structure of letting Albania move ahead of North Macedonia on the negotiating track? Based on Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s behavior in recent years, would this decision trigger a vote of confidence, a political meltdown, or perhaps new elections for North Macedonia?