The European Union warned Bulgaria that it risks undermining security in the Balkans - and wider Europe - if it continues to block EU membership talks for North Macedonia.
North Macedonia has cleared a number of hurdles in recent years - including changing its name - in order to progress with talks to become an EU member.
However, Bulgaria, its neighbour to the east, has now thrown up objections, which EU officials say could “massively endanger the security of Europe”.
German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said that his country is doing all it can to end the standoff, but EU diplomats are doubtful that a breakthrough will be made anytime soon.
“Anything else would be a very severe political mistake at the expense of stability and security in the western Balkans, and that ultimately would massively endanger the security of Europe as a whole — and all should be aware of that,” Roth told reporters.
What is Bulgaria’s issue?
Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to formally recognise that its language has Bulgarian roots, and to stamp out what it says is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric.
Speaking to Euronews in November, Angelos Chryssogelos, an Associate Fellow of the Europe Programme at Chatham House, said the issue is over “history and identity”.
“Particularly, Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to acknowledge that the language spoken by the Slav Macedonian majority in North Macedonia is not "Macedonian" but Bulgarian —or a dialect thereof,” he said.
"They also want Skopje (North Macedonia’s capital) to recognise the ‘Bulgarian origins of the Macedonian nation’ and to give up any claims they may have that there is a separate Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, which Sofia does not recognise as it considers all those who call themselves ‘Macedonians’ as Bulgarians," he added.
According to the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), ethnic Macedonians make up 10 per cent of Bulgaria's population.
But Chryssogelos also said domestic politics could also be behind Bulgaria’s stance.
Widespread protests have been ongoing for months, with protesters demanding the prime minister’s resignation. They accuse Boyko Borissov and the country’s top prosecutor Ivan Geshev of colluding with an oligarchic mafia.
"The uncomfortable truth is that the enlargement process is an attractive tool for EU members to push policies and changes on their non-EU neighbours," Chryssogelos said.
"For Bulgaria, North Macedonia's accession process is a way to extract concessions at an extremely delicate moment for Skopje.
Quite importantly, however, as most of these demands concern intangible issues of identity and history, they reflect the need for the Bulgarian government to adopt strong nationalist posturing for domestic political reasons. Especially as in recent months it has faced corruption allegations, street demonstrations and an economic downturn due to the pandemic," he added.
North Macedonia’s bumpy road to accession
North Macedonia and Albania were actually meant to start EU membership talks last year, but France blocked them, saying the process of joining the 27-nation bloc should be reformed first.
The logjam was freed after the European Commission revised the process for holding their talks.
The prospect of EU membership has long been seen as an incentive driving democratic, political and economic reforms in the volatile Balkans region.
North Macedonia, previously known as Macedonia, has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but a long-running dispute with Greece over the country’s name was the biggest obstacle to accession negotiations.
The two neighbours struck a deal for Macedonia to rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Greece dropping its objections to the country joining the EU.
Countries must negotiate 35 “chapters,” or policy areas, to join the EU.
The chapters are wide-ranging and include financial, agriculture, transport, energy, social and justice policy, among other areas.