North Macedonia received support in its bid to begin European Union membership talks from Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia, a day after Bulgaria said it planned to continue to exercise its veto to block the small Western Balkan nation.
The foreign ministers of the three countries on May 22 voiced support for North Macedonia, along with small neighbor Albania, to start talks with the EU, saying that separate bilateral issues should not block enlargement into the region.
Bulgaria on May 21 said it did not plan to lift its veto on long-delayed accession talks between North Macedonia and the EU over a language and history dispute with its neighbor.
Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, wants Skopje to acknowledge that both its identity and language have Bulgarian roots.
Skopje has long insisted Macedonian is a distinct South Slavic language that forms part of the country's culture and national identity, while Sofia says Macedonian is a regional dialect of Bulgarian.
Unanimity is required from all EU member for the adoption of the negotiating framework.
Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg, the Czech Republic's Jakub Kulhanek, and Slovenia’s Anze Logar arrived in Skopje to offer their backing for EU accession talks, scheduled to start in June.
The three will travel to EU hopeful Albania on May 23.
Kulhanek said it is “not fair” for an EU member nation to condition the process on a bilateral issue.
“This is a crucial time, and we cannot allow [the process] to be stuck with such demands,” he said.
Many in the West have urged the EU to speed ascension talks, seeing membership in the bloc as a way to counter Russian and Chinese efforts to gain influence in the region.
European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi and Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, visited North Macedonia after talks in Sofia.
Zoran Zaev, North Macedonia’s prime minister, on May 21 said the two EU officials presented a proposal that he said provided a “good basis” for resolving his country’s dispute with Bulgaria.
Skopje, which first applied for EU membership in 2004, received a positive assessment from the European Commission in 2005.
Macedonia settled a nearly three decade-long dispute with neighboring Greece over the country’s name, leading it to change it to North Macedonia. Athens considers the name Macedonia to refer to one of its regions.
Western Balkan nations Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina are at various steps in their quests to enter into membership talks with the EU.