Instead by the end of this year, EU’s General Affairs Council expects start of long-awaited EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia to happen “as soon as possible”.

Bulgaria Again Blocks North Macedonia, Albania, EU Accession Talks

EU flags in Brussels. Photo: EPA/EFE

Dashing hopes that a date for the start to EU accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania could be set before year’s end, EU Foreign and European affairs ministers on Tuesday again failed to set a date, and did not give a specific time frame for when it might happen.

“The Council looks forward to the holding of the first intergovernmental conference [with Albania and North Macedonia] as soon as possible,” read the vaguely worded conclusions on enlargement from Tuesday’s General Affairs Council, which took place ahead of the European Council due on Thursday.

Once again, the main reason for the delay, for a second year in a row, was Bulgaria’s blockade on North Macedonia’s EU path over an unresolved history and identity dispute.

Sofia insists on Skopje accepting a de facto Bulgarian identity that centres around the claim that the Macedonian identity and language are of Bulgarian origin.

Bulgaria stated that it was not yet ready to lift the blockade on Skopje, instead suggesting separating North Macedonia and Albania’s processes, so Albania at least can move forward.

But the notion that the two countries should progress as part of one package prevailed at the Council.

New Bulgaria PM pledges fresh course

Meanwhile, the change in regime in Sofia offers North Macedonia some hope.

Bulgaria’s new Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, who assumed office on Monday this week, told Britain’s Financial Times on Tuesday that he wished to reinvigorate stale talks with North Macedonia that may result in a breakthrough within the next six months.

Petkov added that his aim is for Bulgaria to finally lift its blockade and realign itself with the rest of the EU countries when it comes to the EU enlargement process.

“We will put discussions with Northern Macedonia on a new basis,” he pledged, explaining that his plan is to form fresh working groups between the two countries on issues not only related to history but also to the economy, infrastructure and culture.

We will use working groups to seek solutions to issues such as joint economic activity, infrastructure, culture and history,” Petkov said.

However, he said that North Macedonia first has to amend its history textbooks and remove the phrase “Fascist occupying force” when talking about Bulgaria’s occupation of today’s North Macedonia in World War II. Sofia claims that the term foments hatred.

Signaling its openness to Petkov’s idea’s, North Macedonia’s President, Stevo Pendarovski, sounded a positive note on Wednesday, saying that “the approach of the new Bulgaria PM, that history should not be the only venue of communication [between Skopje and Sofia] is acceptable to me”.

Serbia’s and Montenegro’s progress welcomed

As part of its conclusions on enlargement, the Council also greeted progress in EU accession talks made by Serbia and Montenegro.

“The Council welcomes the overall progress made in the accession negotiations so far, with all 33 screened chapters opened and 3 provisionally closed,” the conclusions said about Montenegro.

It was added that before progressing further, Montenegro would need to fulfil “the rule of law interim benchmarks set under chapters 23 and 24”.

Regarding Serbia, which haas just opened the so-called Cluster 4 in is negotiations on EU accession, which focuses on green agenda and sustainable connectivity, the conclusions again welcomed progress.

However, they also underscored that Serbia’s further progress will depend on its performance on “the rule of law and fundamental rights chapters, as well as on the normalisation of Serbia’s relations with Kosovo”.

In negotiations with the EU so far, Serbia has opened 22 out of a total of 35 chapters, two of which have been temporarily closed.

On Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Council stated that it “deeply regrets the prolonged political crisis in the country, which has held back further progress on reforms in 2021, and condemns the blockage of the State institutions”.

Speaking about Kosovo, which, like Bosnia, is not yet a candidiate, the Council welcomed the fact that the new government elected in March has confirmed its strategic commitment to its European path and to related reforms.

The Council “underlines the urgent need for Kosovo to accelerate reform processes, in line with European standards and in view of delivering for the benefit of Kosovo citizens, given the limited progress made so far”.

Regarding Turkey, ministers welcomed its de-escalation with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, stressing that this “needed to be sustained”. They reiterated the EU’s readiness to engage with Turkey in a “phased, proportionate and reversible manner” in areas of common interest.

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