The road from Skopje to Brussels is not via Sofia

Ida Manton




Ida Manton

Ida MantonBoth sides will benefit from a mediation process led by an international expert team, which would be an integral part of the EU SAA process and enriched with dialogue facilitation experts who are well versed in the work and documents of the UN, CoE and OSCE. Both the Bulgarian and Macedonian sides have shown a deep lack of diplomatic sentiment and skill and they would additionally benefit from intensive training on negotiation skills, negotiation preparation, strategic planning, effective communication, conflict analysis, reconciliation methodologies and other topics that need to be identified in the needs assessment.

The road to EU was not via Athens either, but Greek diplomacy worked miracles and convinced the world that their neighbor will not enter NATO or the EU without agreeing to their terms. The Bulgarian diplomats made a mistake when they thought Europe will have patience for more of the same or that they can walk through the same door. Europe, on the other hand, miscalculated the diplomatic success of Prespa when expecting it will put an end to the old rivalries, will build bridges towards friendship or that the Balkan leaders in the EU (and on its doorstep) have become European gentlemen. So, we are officially in a deadlock, which can be overcome, but it is important for all of the involved—Bulgaria, North Macedonia and the European Union, as well as its member states, that the resolution is systematic, inclusive and handled by professional dialogue-facilitators and experts in the contested fields, not rushed and/or a simple box ticking exercise.

The Long and Winding Road Could Become Shorter and Hopefully Less Winding

I wrote on this topic for our negotiation experts network Processes of International Negotiations (PIN), and now this text goes into more details in offering a plausible solution from this point in time—after the Portuguese brought forth their proposal, the EU Presidency’s diplomatic attempt to secure the first Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) for North Macedonia, partially based on the work of their German colleagues.

Considering the time until the aspired IGC later this month is very short, the Portuguese proposal is quite practical when suggesting to separate the EU accession negotiations and the dispute resolution process between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. The latter is a process that cannot happen within a month but agreeing to seriously address the Bulgarian claims should be a reasonable concession to help the Bulgarians unlock the accession process. While the Portuguese proposal is a good base, it needs to be enhanced with an additional operational structure that has substantive competencies in the contested topics – conflict resolution, international law, quiet diplomacy, managing diversity, minority rights, reconciliation, confidence-building measures, monitoring, etc. As it stands now, the Stabilization and Association Council (SAC) process is between the EU and North Macedonia. The obligations are just for North Macedonia to implement.

Additionally, because of the structure of the EU and the SAC process, Bulgaria can have a significant control over the process. On the other hand, the 2017 Agreement for Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation with Bulgaria is based on full reciprocity. All of the obligations are for both countries to implement equally. Therefore, in spite of its good intentions the SAC process undermines the 2017 Agreement. To rectify this flaw, an additional element needs to be added to the SAC process in order to restore reciprocity and dialogue, based on “objective criteria” (as envisaged by the Portuguese). This addition would ideally be a third-party dialogue-facilitation team of experts, led by a high-level diplomat respected by both sides. This team would design the process, facilitate the discussions and provide expertise on the outstanding issues of the 2017 Agreement within the international normative framework that is already applicable to both sides (deriving from the UN, CoE and the OSCE documents and commitments). This dialogue-facilitation team will report to the SAC about progress and challenges, thus providing the necessary monitoring of implementation envisaged in the Portuguese proposal. This addition would make the proposed SAC process more effective, within concrete timelines, while maintaining reciprocity and symmetry, which is the basis for building confidence and increasing trust that would lead towards genuine reconciliation. This will ensure “sustainable results and irreversible process” based on objective criteria, as the Bulgarian leadership have called for.

The question of the Macedonian identity has been on the table in lieu of the EU accession before and it is on the table again. This time because Bulgaria learned from the Prespa process that the pre-accession phase is a conducive time for daring demands and the EU has still not shown its capacity to respond by constructing a thorough, strategic conflict resolution plan and process design, especially not when one of the parties is a member state. The repeating messages for solving the dispute bilaterally, searching for wording that will magically allow Bulgaria to lift the veto and save face just before the last EU Council meeting under the Portuguese Presidency, only exacerbated the dispute and allowed Bulgaria to remain positional and rather rigid in their demands.

More “alternatives” as the one expressed by the Enlargement Commissioner Varhelyi, about de-coupling of Macedonia and Albania, will come to the fore if the Bulgarian claims are allowed to continue blocking the accession path of North Macedonia to the EU. These “trial balloons”, resemble the “window of opportunity” in 2018 prior to Prespa, and while they are very effective in mobilizing sleepy diplomats who suddenly realize much more could have been done, they also lead to rushed, short fixes and are likely to create more complications down the road. Therefore, though the time is short, it is still possible: to have the IGC in June; to set up a separate negotiation process to resolve the dispute; and to agree on its format and structure, i.e., third-party dialogue facilitation team and its substantive mandate.

Help, we need somebody, not just anybody

Both sides should insist on assistance by competent organizations and experts to facilitate the dialogue within a process that should happen in parallel with the EU accession negotiations, not as part of it. This can be done and should be done for many reasons, but a few stand-out and are time-sensitive:

  1. The identity issues raised by Bulgaria will be given a special platform, will be discussed within a normative framework of international standards and commitments and will be heard and addressed by knowledgeable experts. They will have an opportunity to put their claims on a relevant table and convince the world whether the facts they shared with the other 26 EU member states in the Memorandum explaining the relation between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia in the process of enlargement, accession and stabilization (which led to the veto) are legitimate demands and are founded in international law and custom. Once the process is over, these conclusions will clarify the relationship between the two countries and help them reconcile their different views, which is a huge gain for the EU as they will have two cooperative members inside the Union – the spirit of the Union can be shown in practice.
  2. North Macedonia took the bitter pill in order to join the European family and the European Commission already issued a green light for the start of the negotiations. So, they should start. Now the question is whether it will be before the Slovenian Presidency and the EU has to find a way to make it happen without losing too much of its credibility in its neighborhood. Also, if the EU carrot is no longer on the table, the political landscape will further deteriorate. The region is in dire need of supranational system of values and the EU is at the moment the main structure offering that system. The EU also needs this region to be on the progressive path as the geography creates interconnectedness, so it is better and safer for the EU to promote values compatible with a cohesive Union and not lose its influence.
  3. EU will no longer have to close its eyes before the lack of progress and reforms in North Macedonia. It will no longer have to juggle between the assessment of progress and the promises for membership (based more on realpolitik than merit, frankly). Finally, they can start a genuine accession process and expect brisk implementation of the acquis, a push the citizens hoped to see back in 2017. It will still be a long accession process, but the EU can focus its capacities on progress, reforms, and knowledge-transfer, not on history lessons and unfinished chapters of previous wars in the region.

Patot od Skopje do Brisel ne pominuva preku SofijaSource: vlada.mk

This is not a problem that can easily be solved with an Annex or a Roadmap. This is a dispute that requires third-party mediation and normative framework within the EU system. Therefore the Portuguese proposal is opening the possibility to deal with this, and any other future conflicts of this nature, systematically. Instead of insisting that the countries solve their problems bilaterally, the proposal involves the EU as an umbrella under which the dispute will be managed. This is a novelty, something that the EU is changing now.

So far, the EU has been trying to manage expectations and control the enlargement process taking into account that there are different positions among the member states on how well the Union can handle additional complexities and more member states. One of the increasingly important conditions since the 2004 enlargement has become the good neighbourly relations. In this respect, the EU has developed a position that “The EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes and the instability they can entail. Definitive and binding solutions which contribute to regional stability must be found and implemented before a country accedes”.

Settling bilateral disputes has become an explicit precondition for further enlargements since the opening of accession negotiations with Serbia in 2014, whose progress is measured against sustained improvement in its relations with Kosovo. With the 2015 Berlin Process, EU prospective candidates promised not to use bilateral disputes to obstruct each other’s progress to EU integration. Bulgaria did so and the veto has not been well received by most of the EU member states. Trying to impose their own interpretation of the past, while North Macedonia is making its way towards Brussels, has taken a diplomatic toll on Bulgaria. It might be easier for a caretaker government to rectify the mistakes of the previous GERB-led government, which if still in power would have had a hard time to backtrack from the firm position it had in 2020. Once these discussions are bracketed and dealt with by professionals, both countries can hopefully address the more essential demands of their constituencies.

Although the April elections in Bulgaria showed that the electorate gave priority to domestic concerns, including numerous corruption scandals, an alarming economic decline further worsened by the ongoing pandemic, the “Macedonian issue” is unlikely to disappear after the re-run of the elections and the formation of a new Bulgarian government this summer.

I’ll follow the Sun: Making Smart Choices for a Prosperous Common Future

The EU is, therefore, at an important intersection: to insist on the vision in line with the acquis with its liberal prescriptions and to increase regional cooperation and solidarity, or give way to nationalist claims which will jeopardize the enlargement process and the unification of Europe. Bulgaria’s veto raises old claims stemming directly from the 1960s doctrine of their Communist leader Todor Zivkov. Early warning turning into early EU action could prevent this destructive nationalist attempt from spilling across Europe, threaten the vision of the EU project and compound the already existing illiberal fragility evident within the Union today. The EU’s choice is between nationalist revisionisms of European history and solidarity in diversity management according to liberal democratic (i.e., European) norms.

If the EU allows this Pandora’s box to open, Europe will soon have to face its own historical demons, something the Czech and the Slovak Ministers of Foreign affairs recognized when they opposed Bulgaria’s conditioning of the accession negotiations.

Regrettably, the Bulgarian situational power was not sufficiently challenged or tempered by the EU Council at the time. Challenging identities and languages, rewriting national histories, are not topics some member states are willing to revisit, as shown by both the Czech and Slovak Ministers’ letter as well as by another letter from nine EU Foreign Ministers addressed to the Head EU diplomat, Josep Borell, demanding the return of the accession agenda for the Western Balkans - a clear sign of disagreement with the Bulgarian veto. The nine Ministers demanded a strategic approach towards the Western Balkans “not only through the enlargement lenses, but also through foreign policy optics”. The Bulgarian move is not only frowned upon as diplomatically clumsy, but it is seen as dangerous given the political challenges of the current time and the socio-economic crises we already feel due to the pandemic. “The EU must reject any attempt to introduce notions of history and identity into its enlargement policy. Otherwise, it risks trampling on its 70 years of experience in overcoming the legacy of the past and promoting a peace project based on reconciliation and the rule of law”, as the former EUSR Erwan Fouéré wrote recently.

Here Comes the Sun: We Can Get to a Better Place If We Do This Properly

The next stages have to correct deficiencies that exacerbated the problem which largely stem from allowing the process to be handled by national politicians and local historians without international facilitation/mediation offering plausible directions within the normative EU framework. Bulgarian leaders, as well as the Bulgarian members of the joint multidisciplinary expert commission for historical and educational issues have, so far, rejected the idea of the inclusion of foreign experts. President Radev even said: “No one knows the history of this region better than ourselves… The commission should do its work concerning history issues, and we shall take care of the political nature of the affairs. We need to pledge for finding a sustainable and mutually acceptable solution for the bilateral issues”. When Bulgaria is in discussion with North Macedonia, it repeatedly widens the scope of conflict to include the passive support of EU member states as on their side to maintain the asymmetrical advantage over North Macedonia. When the member states suggest the participation of their experts, then Bulgaria narrows the scope of conflict and rejects this generosity in order to maintain superiority again. This hypocritical approach by Bulgaria abuses EU solidarity by demanding the unquestioning backing of member states, while refusing their active offers to provide assistance and expertise, which is the true sign of solidarity.

However, it has become obvious to all of Europe that help is needed. Nationalist escalation could easily intensify if not prevented.

There is still a ‘zone of possible agreement’ and a possibility to set the scene for constructive dialogue. Both the Bulgarian and Macedonian sides have demonstrated a profound lack of diplomatic sense and skill and would benefit from intensive trainings in negotiation skills, preparing for a negotiation process, strategic planning, effective communication, conflict analysis, reconciliation methodologies and other topics that should be identified in a needs-assessment analysis. Above all, both sides will benefit from a third-party mediation process, embedded in the EU’s SAC process and enhanced by dialogue-facilitation experts who are well-versed in the work and documents of the UN, CoE and the OSCE. This third-party mediation would assist in overcoming the often repeated hinderance that the EU has its hands tied because one party to the dispute is a member state. The third-party facilitation would complement the EU’s Stabilization and Accession process by ensuring the full engagement of both sides and by promoting mutual understanding to agree on joint commitments and a common way forward to allow the SA process to proceed in earnest with higher chances of sustainable success.

Another, even more time-sensitive urgent assistance is needed to help with drafting the roadmap that the current Portuguese proposal states North Macedonia should present at the IGC and is envisaged to contain deadlines and responsible institutions as it will be monitored on the highest political level by the EU-Republic of North Macedonia Stabilization and Association Council. As mentioned above, this roadmap should not contain one-sided obligations only for North Macedonia. Instead, the roadmap should be the result of the dialogue between the two sides facilitated by an international team of experts that would assist the two sides to draft the roadmap and further commitments and obligations of both sides. It will be a mutually agreed content that would be the basis of the subsequent SAC process of the Portuguese proposal, including implementation, technical assistance, and a monitoring mechanism. This team would also design a series of confidence building activities for the two sides that can be funded through IPA.

Europe cannot afford discussions on historical ‘truths’ and should promote the recipe that holds the countries of the Union together, i.e., mutual respect for different historical ‘perspectives’. The successful outcome of this process would be to have constructive dialogue under the EU auspices and, instead of causing divisions, to have a process that will heal the old wounds and will focus on current possibilities for fruitful cooperation. The member states can collectively remind Bulgaria that this is a time for renewing the vows for updated solidarity and generosity. The pandemic reshuffled our priorities globally, and the EU should nest this problem in a proper negotiating frame while focusing on more existential support, like new solidarity packages, access to vaccines, economic rehabilitation in the post-Covid period, social cohesion etc., both within the Union and in its immediate neighborhood.


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Ida Manton

Ida Manton is a trainer and scholar in the field of negotiations, mediation and conflict resolution currently living between Skopje and Prague and teaching International Negotiations, Diplomacy and Contemporary practice at various Diplomatic Academies, Institutes, Organizations and Universities throughout Europe (EU, OSCE, NATO Defense College, VSE in Prague, College of Europe etc.). Her previous professional engagement includes mainly work in International Organizations (Peace Corps, NATO, OSCE) in the fields of democratization, minority rights, public relations and good governance. She has published articles, presented at international conferences and is invited as a judge in negotiation competitions globally. She is a member of the Programme of International Negotiation Training– POINT, associated with the Negotiation expert’s network PIN (Processes of International Negotiations). She is also Diplomacy Dialogue’s (Geneva based think tank) Representative at the OSCE Academic Network, In 2018 she became Senior Advisor to PACE Global Strategies, based in the USA. Mrs. Manton has a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature with second major in English Language and Literature from Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, as well as a Master degree in Diplomacy and International Relations from Leiden University and Clingendael in The Netherlands. She is both American and Macedonian citizen, with permanent residence in the Czech Republic.