The EU’s Credibility

Scholz’ visit to Southeast Europe: 19 years after EU accession promises for the region, still no tangible progress. Bulgaria names “cultural center” after Nazi collaborator.

SOFIA/SKOPJE/BERLIN (Own report) – Prior to the EU Commission’s decision whether to grant Ukraine the EU candidate status, the accession process in Southeast Europe remains bogged down. Over the weekend, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ attempt, to persuade Bulgaria to lift its veto on the planned accession negotiation of North Macedonia, proved a failure. The Bulgarian government justifies its veto with ethnic claims, according to which, the population of North Macedonia belongs to the “Bulgarian peoples” without viable autonomy. Skopje must thus confess its “Bulgarianism.” Sofia has named a “Bulgarian Cultural Center” in the North Macedonian city of Bitola after a Nazi collaborator, who had led the fight for the Greater Bulgaria cause in collaboration with Nazi Germany. The fact that, 19 years after the EU’s formal promises of accession, not even the necessary negotiations have been initiated, has provoked great resentment in North Macedonia. Skopje says that the EU must realize, that not promises, but actions are what count.

Greater Bulgaria Claims

The Bulgarian government bases its ongoing veto of the launching of negotiations for EU accession with North Macedonia with ethnic claims, which are popular among right-wing Bulgarians. According to these claims, North Macedonia’s population is part of the “Bulgarian peoples.” Skopje must admit this and cease its “anti-Bulgarian” interpretation of the history of Southeast Europe. In sectors of Bulgaria’s right-wingers this demand is supplemented with Greater Bulgaria agitation. For example, last year, the former Bulgarian Minister of Defense Krassimir Karakachanov campaigned with a map depicting all of North Macedonia as part of Bulgaria.[1] In an election campaign video, Karakachanov’s fellow party member, Angel Dzhambazki, of the ruling WMRO-BNB party at the time, openly came forward with territorial demands. Dzhambazki, who is an EU parliament member, provoked a scandal in February, when he followed his parliamentary speech in Strasbourg with the Nazi salute.[2] The demand that Skopje must officially recognize the affiliation of North Macedonia to “Bulgarianism” enjoys sympathy extending well beyond the openly annexationist, extreme right-wingers, such as those in the “There is such a People” party, of the show master Slawi Trifonow, who sparked a major crisis last week by withdrawing from the government.

Named After a Nazi Collaborator

The Sofia government’s ethnic agitation against North Macedonia has already provoked serious tensions. In April, a “Bulgarian Cultural Center” named after “Ivan Mihailov” was opened in North Macedonia’s Southwestern city of Bitola. In the course of the struggle to secede today’s North Macedonia from Yugoslavia, in the 1930s, Mihailov, a Greater Bulgaria nationalist, had collaborated initially with Croatia’s Ustaša, and later with the Nazi Reich.[3] Accordingly, naming the “Bulgarian Cultural Center” after him has sparked serious controversy. The Jewish community in the country urged the EU to put an end to Bulgarian provocations.[4] There are no indications that Brussels has intervened. Ultimately, on June 4, an arson attack was carried out against the cultural center; the front door was charred, but the fire apparently was extinguished relatively quickly. The assumed culprit, a prominent North Macedonian singer, is said to have confessed to the attack. Making reference to the center’s namesake, demonstrators have begun demanding his release.

Constitutional Amendments

Since 2020, the year the Bulgarian government first vetoed the launching of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia, Berlin and Brussels have been doing their best to convince Sofia to lift its veto – so far to no avail. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was also unsuccessful in his efforts during his visit to the Bulgarian capital on Saturday. An alleged compromise proposal presented to Scholz by Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, is considered nearly impossible to convey. According to this proposal, North Macedonia should amend its constitution to emphasize that the Bulgarian-speaking minority is a constitutive part of its “national people.”[5] Aside from political objections, it is being argued in North Macedonia that the country’s name and its constitution had just been changed in 2019, to free the path for EU accession negotiations – by settling the years-long smoldering controversy with Greece over the nation’s name. Athens had consistently refused to negotiate the question of a possible accession of that country, as long as it lays claim to the same name (Macedonia) as the northern Greek region surrounding Thessaloniki. Already that change of name was, of course, only achieved using political tricks and thanks to extensive foreign interventions, including appearances in Sofia by Chancellor Angela Merkel.[6]

“Much Attractiveness Lost”

The fact that North Macedonia must still wait for the aspired EU accession negotiations weighs heavily. As early as June 2003, 19 years ago, the Union had held out the prospect in principle for the countries of Southeast Europe becoming members at its summit meeting in Thessaloniki. “The future of the Balkan nations lies within the European Union,” according to the summit’s final document, adopted June 21, 2003.[7] In practice, however, the accession process has been dragging out since, without coming anywhere close to a successful conclusion. Montenegro has been conducting accession negotiations since 2012, Serbia since 2014 with meager progress. The EU had assured accession negotiations to North Macedonia and Albania; however, they are currently prevented by Bulgaria’s veto. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have not even been designated as candidates. Observers had noted as early as 2017 that in the countries of Southeast Europe “the promise that with the EU, everything would change for the better, has lost much of its attractiveness.”[8] The mood has deteriorated even further – most recently primarily in North Macedonia due to Bulgaria’s veto.

“Don’t Just Make Promises”

North Macedonia has been an EU candidate country “for 17 years,” the country’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski was quoted saying, and during that time that country has shown its commitment and has harmonized 45% of its legislation with that of the EU’s.[9] Skopje has made many “tough decisions.” However, the EU didn’t “deliver” on the “start of the negotiations,” which is unfortunate. Asked what he thinks of Ukraine suddenly being given the status of a candidate country, a status Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have been awaiting for 19 years, Kovačevski replied: “We can only wish them luck in their EU candidacy aspirations, but the EU has to be aware that it has to deliver, not only promise.” Because that is ultimately what keeps “the credibility.”


[1] Daniel Braun, Davor Pasoski: Nach den Wahlen in Bulgarien: Wann werden die Gespräche mit Skopje weitergeführt? Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Auslandsbüro Nordmazedonien. April 2021.

[2] Bulgarischer EU-Abgeordneter zeigt Hitlergruß. 17.02.2022.

[3] Stefan Troebst: Makedonischer Staat von Hitlers Gnaden? Ein nationalsozialistisches Staatsgründungsprojekt vom Sommer 1944. In: Gabriella Schubert (Hg.): Makedonien. Prägungen und Perspektiven. Wiesbaden 2005. S. 41-54.

[4] Valentina Dimitrievska: Controversial Bulgarian cultural centre in North Macedonia set on fire. 05.06.2022.

[5] Michael Martens: Reise in die Krise. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 10.06.2022.

[6] S. dazu NATO's Thirtieth Member.

[7] Gipfeltreffen EU – westliche Balkanstaaten. Erklärung. Thessaloniki, 21.06.2003.

[8] Norbert Mappes-Niediek: Die EU hat auf dem Balkan viel an Reiz verloren. 08.02.2017.

[9] Alexandra Brzozowski: North Macedonia’s PM: We wish Ukraine good luck but for us, the EU didn’t deliver yet. 08.06.2022.