It is not possible to split the EU membership bids of North Macedonia and Albania, says North Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
Brussels had been considering both applications alongside each other, but last week Olivér Várhelyi, the European commissioner for enlargement, told Euronews that decoupling the bids "might be an option" if Bulgaria continues to oppose North Macedonia's entrance in the bloc.
Bulgaria demands North Macedonia, which has been a potential candidate for EU membership since 2003, to acknowledge the Bulgarian origins of the Macedonian language and nation.
"Our identity, Macedonian language, Macedonian identity, are holy for us, like for every [other] country," Zaev told Euronews on Monday morning after his meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels.
"Our Macedonian language and Macedonian identity are not negotiable."
Zaev said the Prespa agreement, which Greece and North Macedonia reached in 2018 to resolve a dispute over the latter's name and facilitate the accession talks, is an example of his country's willingness to engage in diplomacy.
But there are limits to that goodwill, he warned.
"We have our pride and we have our identity. Our pride can go up and down. We showed that through the Prespa agreement and with our diplomacy and flexibility.
"Our identity is one and unique and there is no possibility my government or any other government to negotiate for that. And therefore, it's not possible [for] either a state or even a union [of which] we are not still members, to play with that.
"[From my side], it's not possible to have decoupling, or [any other kind] of development or event for practical reasons without a word of North Macedonia after everything that's happened," Zaev said in reference to the landmark agreement and the reforms his country has implemented as part of preparations for EU membership.
'We deserve the next step'
Zaev believes North Macedonia "deserves" to enter the next step of the membership process: the intergovernmental conference.
Negotiations to become an EU country are conducted within the framework of a bilateral intergovernmental conference that gathers representatives from member states and the candidate country.
The European Commission also participates in these sessions, which focus on how the candidate country will incorporate the entire body of EU law and adapt its domestic regulations.
In March 2020, the European Council agreed to open accession talks with both Albania and North Macedonia, thus enabling the creation of the conferences. However, Bulgaria's persistent opposition has so far prevented the diplomatic breakthrough from becoming a reality.
"We expect the EU as a whole, all 27 member countries, the European Commission, to be in the line to what they promised to us. That was: you deliver, we will deliver. We delivered and we have doubled it. And we expect the European Union to deliver," said Zaev.
"We are open to discuss any issue [that] is negotiable for everyone. But issues like identities, like languages, are never talked in any step of enlargement of the European Union with any other country.
"It's a huge risk if there is a continuation of the blockage. It’s a risk for Bulgaria also, for North Macedonia, for the whole Balkans," he warned.
The prime minister believes the prolonged accession bid and its resulting frustration have led to the circulation of an alleged non-paper that advocates redrawing the borders of the Balkan countries formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The explosive document, whose existence has not been fully verified, proposes Serbia, Croatia, and Albania being expanded to swallow up parts of neighbouring Bosnia, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
"We are completely, all of us, dedicated to our European Union future. But there is still extreme and radical forces all around inside the Balkans, out of Balkans, who are very much focused and they wait [for the] chance for that kind of unpleasant activities," Zaev remarked, adding that similar forces can also jeopardise the Prespa agreement.
"[The Prespa agreement] can be at risk only if there is bitter feelings to the citizens of North Macedonia and the whole region, if more reasons for nationalism and extremism appear, which is present everywhere, especially in the Balkans, and can damage the agreement, but we believe that we have enough strength to protect it."