Four reasons why North Macedonia’s membership in the EU would benefit Bulgaria

On the 17th of November 2020, Bulgaria blocked through veto the start of the accession talks of North Macedonia with the EU. The reason for that is the historical dispute of the two countries about the existence of the separate nationality and language of North Macedonia. North Macedonia, as well as Albania, awaited the start of the EU accession talks for a long time – these were first opposed by the European Council, then by the former President of the European Council Junker, and in 2019 by the French veto. However, great efforts were made by the government of North Macedonian to enable the  start of the accession talks – especially the solution of the name dispute with Greece.

Now, after the adoption of a more complex EU membership criteria, as France wished, the negotiations were blocked again by the Bulgarian veto, even though national disputes between different countries should not be included in the voting for or against membership process. However, a lot was said and written about the cultural cleavages, and this is not another text tackling this topic. On the contrary, I want to answer the question of what impact the EU accession of North Macedonia (or at least the process of it)  would have on its relations with Bulgaria?

The process of joining the EU

This reflection must start with the question of why a country should join the European Union and how the process and membership affect a state. During the EU accession talks, the candidate state needs to fulfill specific criteria, which have to be done at certain points on the way towards membership. All in all, there are 22 criteria, concerning the institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities. But also economic criteria such as the existence of a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with the intra-EU competition are part of the requirements.

In practice, the membership  candidate has to adopt many already existing EU laws and regulations. Furthermore, aspiring EU members must resolve outstanding disputes. This criteria has proved a powerful tool over the years.

Once accessed, the EU single market enables the four fundamental freedoms for citizens and companies in the new member states. These are the movement of people, goods, services, and capital.

Additionally, political standards like higher environmental standards or a common external policy get implemented.

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Bulgaria and North Macedonia in the EU

But what does all this mean regarding the relations between Northern Macedonia and Bulgaria? How could an accession influence the lately tense relationship? First, closer economic ties and trade flows will also affect political and cultural relations positively. This assumption is one of the main drivers of European integration for more than 60 years.

Studies have shown that even if we live in a globalized world, distance still matters when it comes to trade.

Particularly in regards to cultural and geographic distance. And even though both governments and political leaders clash about historical issues, there is shared history and culture between both neighboring states. Since the early beginning of the European Union, trade-relations have been used to fix cleavages and bring former enemies together. Why should it not work the same way in relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia?

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Freedom of movement

Second, the same can be argued about the services provided by a state. Through the free movement of citizens, they could be used either way from Bulgarians in North Macedonia or the other way around. In the knowledge-based economies of the EU, services are one of the biggest sales markets and will grow more easily with an increased number of citizens sharing the same single market.

Exchange of talent

Third, also regarding the advanced single market, is the free movement of citizens from both countries. That could improve tourism, student exchange, and the exchange of knowledge workers between both countries. While an increased tourism branch could impact the economy in the short-term, the improved movement of professionals could do that in the long run.

The exchange of knowledge by individuals will be the backbone of European economies in the future, and to enable easy movement between different European cities can guarantee the success of a region. The free movement of students can furthermore increase the awareness of a kind of European feeling between different nationalities. This sense of unity could decrease the tensions about individual historical or cultural views between the citizens of the two countries. 

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Combined forces

Fourth and finally, the cooperation between the two countries could lead to intensified regional corporations in significant fields such as investment in infrastructure used by both countries (for example, highways between Sofia and Skopje), research and development, environmental protection, and cross-border fight against organized crime. These joint projects can improve the life quality of individual citizens as well as tackle collective challenges.

But the dispute can not just rely on the membership process of North Macedonia. The two countries also need to be accommodating. The first step towards a solution could be the further implementation of the already existing Bulgarian-North Macedonian friendship agreement. In the agreement, the implementation of a historical commission was already discussed. This joint team of historians could work out different disputes based on common considerations and smooth out the waves for further steps. The implementation of this shared commission could be crucial for the economic development and increased sales markets described in this article. 

This article is based on the personal views of the author and might not reflect the position of the organizations that he is affiliated with.

Richard Kaufmann

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