Bulgaria quarrel threatens to put brakes on North Macedonia EU membership talks

Finally, more than a decade-and-a-half after it first applied, what is now North Macedonia appeared to be sprinting down the home straight to EU membership.

A long-running name dispute with its southern neighbours Greece had seen Athens put up obstacle after obstacle to Skopje joining the bloc.

But, last year, both countries came to a historic agreement that settled the argument and put North Macedonia within sight of the finishing line.

Now, within touching distance of its goal, another hurdle has appeared on the horizon in the shape of neighbours Bulgaria.

Sofia, currently engulfed in long-running anti-government protests, has objected to membership talks getting underway.

It is unhappy with the “current negotiating framework”, which sets the groundwork for North Macedonia’s accession.

Bulgaria’s foreign ministry did not give specific reasons for its dissatisfaction, simply saying the current framework “does not provide the legal guarantees sought by Bulgaria”. It insists its “demands” are formally added to the negotiating documents.

Bulgaria and North Macedonia are at odds over language, and, in turn, history, with the former demanding Skopje recognise that its language and country has Bulgarian roots, which would thus put an end to claims that there is a distinct Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.

Sofia says Macedonian is a regional dialect of Bulgarian, but North Macedonia maintains that Macedonian is a distinct South Slavic language and an integral part of the culture and identity of its citizens.

Over the past two weeks, the countries have been in talks to try and find a solution before a meeting involving the foreign ministers of EU member states, which was planned for November 10 but has now been pushed back.

Since its split from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country had been internationally known by the clunky moniker of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, after Athens refused to recognise its use of the name Macedonia, which is already used by a region in northern Greece.

EU leaders gave the green light for North Macedonia and Albania to begin formal talks to join the bloc in March.

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