Leaders in the Bulgarian capital Sofia and the Macedonian capital Skopje have spoken out in response to the decision by European Union foreign ministers to hold off a decision on a date for Macedonia to start accession negotiations with the EU pending progress on key foreign policy issues by the former Yugoslav republic.
Greece remained opposed to Skopje being given a date for the start of talks until the bilateral dispute about the use of the name Macedonia is resolved, while Bulgaria underlined that it wanted to see concrete actions by Macedonia to meet EU criteria for good neighbourly relations.
In draft conclusions, the General Affairs Council, that met in Brussels on December 11 2012, said that as set out in the European Council conclusions of June 2008, maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the United Nations, “remains essential”.
“There is a need to bring the longstanding discussions on the name issue to a definitive conclusion without delay,” the EU foreign ministers said.
The Council said that it welcomed “the momentum that had been generated by recent contacts/exchanges between the two parties, following for the Greek proposal for a memorandum of understanding”.
The conclusions of the meeting said that the Council was encouraged by recent contacts with the UN mediator.
“In light of the overall importance of maintaining good neighbourly relations, the
Council also notes the recent high level contacts between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria and looks forward to their translation into concrete actions and results.”
The Council said that it would consider a decision on opening accession negotiations after a European Commission report in spring 2013 on the implementation of reforms by Macedonia “as well as steps taken to promote good neighbourly relations and to reach a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue under the auspices of the UN”.
The ministers said that if their assessment was positive, the European Council would invite the European Commission to submit “without delay” a proposal for a framework for negotiations with Skopje and to “carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis beginning with the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security. The Council takes note of the intention of the Commission to conduct all the necessary preparatory work in this respect.”
In a December 12 statement, President Rossen Plevneliev – who the previous day along with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov again had underlined that Sofia’s support for Macedonia’s progress towards EU membership was not unconditional – welcomed the decision by the EU foreign ministers, saying that it was “wise, sound and fair” and took into account the problems while heeding the voice of EU member states in the region.
Plevneliev said that the decision by the Council, apart from pointing out the problems, will assist also in finding solutions to them. The President reiterated that Bulgaria will judge the goodwill of Macedonia “only by its actions”.
“Today we have no problems with the people in Macedonia and our people-to-people contacts are perfect,” Plevneliev said. “We want to support the efforts of the government in Skopje and we are reaching out our hand, and nothing stands in our way – we have a clear goal, let us achieve it together,” he said. He underlined that “good neighbourliness cannot be ignored in the European Union”
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov said that his country would assist Macedonia to move forward on the path of European integration as swiftly as possible, and for that reason Bulgaria welcomed the Council conclusions, a statement by the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said.
He said that the reservations regarding good neighbourly relations would be withdrawn as soon as the bilateral process proposed by Bulgaria produced concrete results. This would be to the benefit of Bulgaria, of Macedonia and the entire region, Mladenov said. He reiterated Bulgaria’s clear desire to see its neighbours in the EU as soon as possible, in accordance with the accepted criteria.
As reported by Bulgarian news agency BTA, Mladenov, speaking to journalists in Brussels on December 11, said: “When a country wants to be a part of the EU, it needs to make more efforts than usual, to double or triple its efforts if necessary in order to resolve the problems with its neighbours and other difficult issues.”
Bulgaria has emphasised repeatedly – most recently in statements on December 11 – that it wants to see concrete actions by Macedonia to improve bilateral relations, including an end to anti-Bulgarian rhetoric, an end to discriminatory actions against people in Macedonia who identify themselves as being of Bulgarian ethnicity, while Sofia also wants Skopje to join it in a formal agreement on actions to build good neighbourly relations, including joint celebrations and commemorations of people and events in shared history, with no further manipulations of historical facts.
In a statement, the Macedonian ministry of foreign affairs said that it welcomes the conclusion that expansion remains a key policy of the European Union, that would continue to strengthen peace, democracy and stability in Europe, and that hence the Union be better placed to overcome global challenges and to achieve its own strategic interests.
The Macedonian foreign ministry said it welcomes the explicit possibility of making the decision to open accession negotiations in the coming period. It also welcomed acknowledgement that it had made progress in reforms, including in key areas, the ministry said.
The continuous promotion of good neighbourly relations remain a sincere and substantial commitment of the Republic of Macedonia, the foreign ministry in Skopje said.
(Photo of government buildings in Skopje: wikcom)