A surprise initiative by France's waning EU presidency to end a two-year dispute over shared Balkan culture in time for this week's European summit hung in the balance ahead of a June 22 deadline, underscoring regional resentments and uncertainty amid risks of a further erosion of faith in the European Union.
Bulgaria invoked its veto power on negotiations with would-be members in 2020 to block North Macedonia's candidacy based on accusations that the Macedonian language was simply Bulgarian by another name and Skopje was disrespecting its shared cultural and historic ties to Bulgarians.
There were hopes that the sides could reach a compromise to lift the veto in time for EU leaders to green-light a negotiating framework for North Macedonia at the June 23-24 summit, breathing life into the EU's moribund enlargement efforts in the Western Balkans.
Further stalemate could still be overcome -- eventually -- if this week ends in defeat for the French initiative. But any setback would be particularly painful in North Macedonia if Ukraine and Moldova leapfrog it in line at the summit.
Moreover, a no-confidence vote in Bulgaria's pro-European prime minister and his frayed coalition on June 22 raised the stakes of the debate in Sofia. If the French initiative fails, there's no telling whether a hobbled or caretaker government could take meaningful action on such a fraught national topic with Bulgaria's fourth elections in about a year looming.
Why Are They In This Mess?
North Macedonia (then named Macedonia) formally applied to join the EU in 2004 and was granted "candidate" status the following year. But it still hasn't agreed with the bloc on the "special framework" that Western Balkans countries need for negotiations, known as the "stabilization and association process." That process requires unanimity among the EU's existing members, including Bulgaria.
In October 2019, Bulgaria threatened to block North Macedonia's special framework, accusing Skopje of historical denialism and anti-Bulgarian attitudes over shared aspects of culture as Macedonians pursued "ongoing nation building." It suggested it didn't regard Macedonian as a separate language from Bulgarian and insisted EU officials avoid the term "Macedonian language."
Some of those concerns had been at the center of a Friendship Treaty signed by both countries in 2017.
But in September 2020, Bulgaria issued a formal memo to the European Council accusing North Macedonia of ignoring its commitments under the Friendship Treaty and laying out demands before it would lift its veto.
Stalemate ensued. Shortly after new Bulgarian and Macedonian governments took over in December 2021 and January, respectively, they signaled fresh determination to achieve a breakthrough on the dispute.
What's The 'French Proposal' Anyway?
The French EU Presidency sent out a proposal for breaking the Bulgarian-Macedonian impasse on June 18.
It has not been made public, although media, including RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, have obtained copies.
It "welcomes Skopje's intention" to include in the preamble of the Macedonian Constitution "citizens who live within the borders of the state and are part of other nations, such as Bulgarians." Inserting such a clause would require a two-thirds vote in parliament.
The proposal makes no specific mention of a "Bulgarian minority" but talks of the Macedonian government's obligation to protect the rights of all "minorities and communities" by preventing hate speech and discrimination.
It states that the European Commission will monitor and report to the European Council on Macedonian compliance.
The proposal "takes note" of intentions on both sides to issue "unilateral declarations on the issue of the Macedonian language," seemingly leaving the door open for action in Sofia and Skopje on the subject.
It also imposes an obligation on Skopje to respect its 2017 Friendship Treaty with Sofia, effectively steering Brussels into monitoring compliance of that bilateral agreement as well as of the so-called Sofia Agreement of 2018.
The proposal suggests two intergovernmental conferences, including one this week in Brussels and another after North Macedonia changes the constitution's preamble.
This week's EU summit will be largely dominated by decisions stemming from Russia's four-month-old invasion of Ukraine on whether to accept the EU applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and, more improbably, Georgia.
But there are other items on the agenda.
One of the bloc's principal challenges has been its relations toward nonmembers in the Balkans and perceptions that they are being frozen out again.
France has been among the staunchest resistors of early enlargement, publicly and behind the scenes.
Brussels and EU members have kicked the can of EU enlargement down the road for years regarding the so-called Western Balkans Six -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
Now, in the context of Russia's war on Ukraine, some of those aspiring members' relations with Moscow and their resistance to joining Western sanctions and other efforts to punish or discourage President Vladimir Putin's aggression have taken on new significance.
In Serbia, for instance, polling recently showed for the first time opposition to EU membership outweighing support and President Aleksandr Vucic has declined to impose sanctions or flight bans against Russia.
On a visit to Kyiv last week, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that immediate candidate status for Ukraine should be associated with a road map for the Western Balkans and Moldova.
His vision of what he called a "European Political Community" is reminiscent of an older French-backed notion of concentric circles for a future EU, and certainly has its detractors.
But France's EU Presidency ends on June 30, so the summit could be Macron's last chance to usher through any perceived breakthroughs to nurture the EU ambitions of Balkan hopefuls.
Why Is This So Tricky For Sofia...
After months of reports suggesting momentum to convince the Bulgarian side to withdraw its veto, centrist Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's government was set, at best, to become a minority or caretaker government after the no-confidence vote of June 22.
The Macedonian question has featured prominently in the current crisis.
Petkov publicly soft-pedaled Sofia's demands earlier this month to include a parliamentary framework, "inclusion of Bulgarians" in the Macedonian Constitution "so that their rights can be protected," and implementation of the Friendship Treaty.
Junior partner There Is Such a People then blamed the issue in part for a decision to leave the ruling coalition, and party leader Slavi Trifonov latched onto the purported absence of any explicit reference to a "Bulgarian minority" in the proposal. He described Petkov's actions as a national betrayal.
Last week, with the walls closing in on Petkov's government, the Bulgarian cabinet handed responsibility for lifting the veto to parliament. That means opposition lawmakers -- potentially including the populist GERB party that lost power late last year -- are needed.
This week, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a former Petkov ally who has backed a hard line on the Macedonian question for two years, seemingly softened his position and expressed support for the French proposal.
North Macedonia has now been idling for nearly two decades in its drive to get into the European Union, and still has no formal framework for EU negotiations.
But the timing of a potential failure this week, exactly four years after Macedonians signed onto the Prespa Agreement to end a name dispute with Greece that qualified their country as "North Macedonia" despite fierce internal opposition, could be a double blow to the national psyche.
That concession was supposed to revive Macedonians' EU integration efforts. But barely two years later, Bulgaria came along with its own qualifications of Macedonian identity and the accompanying veto.
Following reports of the French proposal, Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski joined opposition politicians in seeking assurances that his country would "demand firm guarantees from both Bulgaria and the EU that the inclusion of Bulgarians in the country's constitution is the last condition" for accession negotiations to begin.
Macedonian officials avoided staking out unambiguous positions on the French initiative in the absence of any confirmation that Sofia was aboard.
Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski and Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani each said they would make their position clear once all 27 EU members were united.
But RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service suggested that the EU had "offered Bulgaria more than it could have imagined" via the French proposal.
A declaration adopted by the Macedonian parliament last year insists on the continuity of the Macedonian language and its dialects, as well as the native status of the Macedonian people and respect for their historical, linguistic, cultural, and religious continuity.
Osmani, whose ministry is leading negotiations with Bulgaria but -- as of early this week -- said he had not received the French proposal, has suggested that "we think we have a mandate to continue talking" as long as any proposal complies within that parliamentary framework.
As the deadlines loomed for Sofia and Skopje to sign off on their compromise, there was still some uncertainty as to whether Kovocevski's government had the authority to give national assent to the French proposal.
One of the concerns among Macedonians is that whatever concessions they might make now, Bulgaria's position inside the EU gives it almost limitless power to derail Skopje's negotiations at any point in the process.
Bulgaria could still potentially suspend the process over perceived failures to meet requirements of their 2017 Friendship Treaty, for example.
Nikola Dimitrov, North Macedonia's foreign minister until January, told a recent roundtable debate on the topic that Skopje's fortunes have swung wildly and unfavorably in just a few months with respect to the prospect of European integration.
"The [French] proposal doesn't lead us to EU membership. Do we want to start negotiations, or do we want to conclude negotiations and gain membership?"
Why Should Outsiders Care?
Critics argue that EU credibility has been at stake for years in the Balkans, with reassurances on enlargement repeatedly offered and abandoned. Publics in the region are exhausted by their own governments' reform failures and EU stonewalling, compounding demographic woes from emigration since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars.
Meanwhile, Europeans have been acutely anxious for years about Russian attempts to maintain special and potentially disruptive relationships in the Balkans. Moscow has most notably kept its energy ties and political influence active in Serbia.
But even since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, Moscow has stepped up its diplomatic and economic support for Serbia and for the secessionist Bosnian Serb leadership of Republika Srpska, which along with the Muslim and Croat federation composes Bosnia.
Detractors of the French compromise have also warned that future European Union hopefuls could be held hostage to any EU member's bilateral demands as a result of the formal incorporation of Sofia's Friendship Treaty with North Macedonia into the negotiation and monitoring process.