Small-Country Diplomacy: What if Bulgaria Prevents Further EU enlargement?

Small-Country Diplomacy: What if Bulgaria Prevents Further EU enlargement?

Discussions of further enlargement of the EU have largely stalled since the Brexit referendum. Among others, France emerged as the main obstacle on Western-Balkan countries’ path towards Brussels. But the recent Berlin Process summit has proved that Sofia could be an even tougher nut to crack, especially for Skopje.

More than a year has passed since the last time the EU discussed expansion. Back in October 2019, France’s President Emmanuel Macron took the center stage. His veto closed the door on Albania’s and the Republic of North Macedonia’s (RNM) chances of joining the EU. In the aftermath of that decision the so-called ‘Western Balkan 6’ (WB6) made little progress. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and the RNM are all waiting on the EU’s doorstep at various distances. The RNM is still the closest of them all to full membership, especially after the Prespa Agreement; however, an obstacle no other candidate country has yet to face hinders its “last mile”. Having solved its long-standing dispute with Greece, the RNM must now confront Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s ‘softer’ approach

During the Cold War, the communist leadership in Bulgaria advanced territorial claims on the then-Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Yet, ever since the collapse of Yugoslavia, Sofia has been rather “soft” on Skopje. Surely, Bulgaria’s approach has been “softer” than Greece’s, which always stonewalled the Former-Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in all international fora. Athens went so far as to put an embargo on Skopje and supported Milosevic until 1995.

Conversely, Sofia abandoned all its territorial claims on FYROM in the 1990s. Its government was also the first one to recognise the FYROM’s independence. But while Bulgaria was the first country to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Macedonian republic in 1992, […] it was clear that the Bulgarians did not accept the Macedonians as constituting a nation distinct from the Bulgarian.

Thus, the issue dividing Bulgaria and the RNM is very different from the one that infuriated Greece. Greece advanced arguments for historical distinction and separateness. On the contrary, Bulgarians argue that Macedonians are not distinct and separate. As a Bulgarian official put it, “We must agree that our history is common and based on Bulgarian national self-consciousness.”

Figure 1 A map of Greece, the former Yugoslvia and Bulgaria highlighting the historical region known as ‘Macedonia’.
© F. A. Telarico

Where are We Now

Its less-confrontational stance may have helped keep Bulgaria out of the “Balkan Wars of the 90s”.  Nevertheless, it had a price.  Bulgarian requests for clarifying its relations with Macedonia, although they were justifiable, were side-lined for several decades. The two sides reached a turning point shortly before the official resolution of the Greek-Macedonian spat in 2018. In effect, Skopje and Athens had clearly signaled willingness to reach a compromise even before then. Thus, one can understand part of the reason why in 2017 Macedonia began to work on its relations with Bulgaria.


Figure 2 Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov speaks next to his North Macedonian counterpart Zhoran Zaev following the official signing cerimony celebrated in skopje on August 1, 2017.
©  Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski

The first stepping stone in this process was the signing of a landmark agreement on August 1, 2017. The Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation offered “an encouraging example of how differences between neighbors can be resolved peacefully.” The date was highly symbolic being August 1 the eve of an important holiday for the two countries. The next day, August 2, is dedicated to commemorate the briefly-successful 1903 anti-Ottoman uprising of St Elijah’s Day or Ilinden.

Figure 3 One of the figure most contested in the Bulgarian-Macedonian debate is Goce Delchev, a 20th-century revolutionary. These are two examples of how both Macedonians (above) and Bulgarians (below) reclaim this figure’s memory though his quotations. The phrase in the upper part reads: “I don’t know another people who has suffered more to transmit his legacy to his children than the Macedonian.” Below, again Delchev writes: “… but what can we do given that we are Bulgarians and we all suffer form a common pain?”.
© Opserver and

Over a century later the Bulgarian and Macedonia remain at odds over the “property” of the memory of the protagonists of their common history. This explains why the 2017 agreement included the establishment of a “Joint Multidisciplinary Commission”. Made up mostly of historians, the commission was set up to establish common ground on contentious issues while setting policy aside; however, its work has not proceeded smoothly. In December 2019, the RNM abandoned the work of the commission without previous notice. This unilateral refusal to cooperate came worryingly close to an electoral window in the country. Consequently, after ten months of stubborn Macedonian silence, the Bulgarian defence minister menaced: “Bulgaria will respond at the first intergovernmental conference, until these issues are solved.”

Bulgaria leading Berlin Process — No Game Changer

On November 9 the foreign ministers of Bulgaria and the RNM co-chaired the latest meeting of the so-called Berlin Process. This development took place after the Joint Multidisciplinary Commission had restarted its gatherings despite the ongoing pandemic earlier in October. The Macedonian side was particularly hopeful insofar as 

This year, the Joint Presidency with the Republic of Bulgaria, additionally gives us an opportunity to demonstrate closeness, cooperation and mutual support of the two neighbours, as key part of the aspiration to European perspective of the whole region. […] That is the main goal of the Berlin Process, and that is what we need most in this moment. 

Figure 4 Ekaterina Zaharieva during the preparation of the Berlin process summit on November 9, 2020.
© Standart

However, the Bulgarian seemed ready to cool down their colleagues’ animal spirits. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva was adamant in her statement of continued support for the WB6’s accession to the EU. Nonetheless, she remarked the former’s responsibility not to destabilise the Union with their pre-extant problem. Namely, Zaharieva was sceptical of the Macedonians’ willingness to comply with the 2017 agreement. Especially given that in the last few months “there were over 10,000” instances of mass-media “hate speech against Bulgaria.”


It would be easy to assume that Germany and the EU will decide the WB6’s future. However, this would deprive both Bulgaria and the RNM of any agency. Indeed, the Macedonian side has long believed that Bulgaria did not have the strength to defend its interests. But after the Prespa Agreement the scenario has changed dramatically. Sofia is no longer indulging in excessive softness and has found a powerful backer in Heiko Maas, Berlin’s top diplomat. Nevertheless, Bulgaria is probably not going to come out too hard against the RNM. Most likely, Sofia will remove its veto on EU accession as soon as Skopje accepts a relation like “the one Cyprus has with Greece”. 

Therefore, no one should be surprised if the RNM becomes the next EU member State. But such a development may not come soon, ensuring persistent uncertainty on the market when it comes to Macedonia and the WB6.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Fabio Telarico

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. He is fluent in Italian, English and Bulgarian. Between 2015 and 2017 he won several prizes in nation-wide literary contests. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR. He also participates regularly to international conferences on the same topic.