Tonino Pitsula: Bulgaria uses EU membership to put pressure on North Macedonia

The tensions between Sofia and Skopje are definitely not good for either the Macedonian or the Bulgarian society, but it is obvious that there are irresponsible and radical political options, which "parasitize" on nationalist and very emotional topics, says the Croatian MEP Pitsula in the interview for "Sloboden stamp".

Croatian MEP Tonino Pizzula is considered one of the great experts on the work of the European Parliament (this is his third mandate), on the situation in the countries of the Western Balkans, on the future of the European Union - he was hired as a reporter on the strategy for its expansion...

Q: Some time ago, together with the MEPs Schröder and Nemets, you condemned the statements and threats of your Bulgarian colleague Djambaski as contrary to the basic principles of the EU, and you said that you would open this issue to the President of the European Parliament and to the conservatives. Could he face any consequences?

- With colleagues Schröder and Nemets, I issued a statement on behalf of the group of socialists and democrats in the European Parliament. We have clearly condemned hate speech and threats that are contrary not only to our work culture in the European Parliament, but also to basic democratic values. The MP in question had previously had problematic outbursts, and was also financially fined for the fascist salute during a session of the European Parliament. In addition, there were chauvinistic outbursts towards colleague Karima Del and colleague Ismail Ertug. All that speaks a lot about the character of the MP we are talking about.

Q: Bulgaria, in relation to Macedonian European integration, changed its strategy and instead of insisting on historical issues, it turned to respecting the rights of minorities, for which Macedonia has excellent results. How to stop Bulgaria in the constant demands, what can be the role of the EU?

- Bulgaria obviously uses its position as a member state to exert both formal and informal pressure on North Macedonia on its way to the EU. After the removal of the veto, now obviously other procedures are in order, but with the same goal. The standard way of decision-making in the EU does not exclude any member state from the procedure. However, the rule of consensus decision-making can often complicate and prolong decision-making. We have seen in the cases of the Hungarian sanctions-related blockades of Russia and the aid to Hungary what problems this can create. An additional problem with the Bulgarian pressures is the existence of a temporary government, i.e. the duration of a constant political crisis with no end in sight. In such a constellation of forces, it is more difficult to expect a bolder step forward by Sofia, because such a thing would be immediately declared as concession and betrayal by the right and nationalists. Such a situation, unfortunately, does not work in North Macedonia's favor. It seems that we have to wait for another election in Bulgaria, with the hope that a clear election winner will crystallize with whom Skopje will finally be able to discuss long-term political decisions.

Q: How would you comment on the current tensions in the relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria, for which the first occasion was the names of the Bulgarian clubs in our country?

- I would say that the tensions are definitely not good for either Macedonian or Bulgarian society, but it is obvious that there are irresponsible and radical political options that "parasitize" on nationalist and very emotional topics. Many things need to be changed in the content and forms of communication in order to close the open questions of a historical nature between the two neighboring states and the two neighboring peoples. This situation certainly slows down North Macedonia's European path, but it does not help a bit for a more positive perception of Bulgaria in the EU.

Q: Macedonian Vice Prime Minister Bojan Maricic recently mentioned an idea of ​​organizations, analysts and think-tanks for a quick entry of Macedonia into the EU with a frozen right of veto in the first five to ten years or a frozen right of commissioner. Is such a thing possible?

- I am not sure that that idea has been worked out, but because of such proposals, without a doubt, the agreements on the functioning of the EU must also be modified. That's why I don't believe it's a realistic option at all. I am convinced that North Macedonia should strive exclusively for full membership in the European Union, and not for substitutes for such membership.

Q: If you were to talk about Macedonia now, what would you say, what should the state do as a priority task, fight against corruption, reforms, constitutional changes, early elections...?

- I believe that, first of all, he should concentrate on the well-known priorities from the European Commission Report, especially on the fight against corruption and reform of the judiciary. There is no doubt that it would be optimal if the French proposal, which envisages constitutional amendments, were also respected. It should be taken into account that this is the last full year of the work of the EU institutions in this five-year term. This means that it would be good for North Macedonia to make another significant step this year before the European elections in 2024.

Q: Many initiatives have appeared for the Western Balkans – Berlin Process, Open Balkans, European Political Community. Does the region need so many initiatives for which we do not know how useful they are?

- What characterizes the Western Balkans is not the lack of different initiatives, because there are enough of them, but the lack of real cooperation and understanding. Besides, all those platforms are not even the same considering that they have different participants, profiles and cooperation mechanisms. I am openly skeptical of the Open Balkans. I believe that the project of the long-developed Berlin process meets the goal, is inclusive and represents a logical step in the EU integration process. It is not unimportant that the project includes both members and non-members of the EU. As for the European Political Community, it is a geopolitical initiative of President Macron, but poorly defined and without any stronger logistics or structure. It resembles an informal club, but I see it as potentially useful in terms of strengthening the security-defense environment of the EU, especially in our neighborhood.

Q: Is the year 2030 a realistic projection of entry into the EU of the countries of the region? What if Serbia does not accept the plan for Kosovo?

– In my Recommendations for a new EU enlargement strategy that was recently voted by the European Parliament, among many other positive but also critical views, we defined for the first time the year 2030 as the time point when all current accession negotiations of the candidate countries must be concluded . However, I do not see any solution on the horizon that all the countries of the region would enter at the same time, nor do I believe that all the actors would agree to it. I believe that the principle of a regatta, not a convoy, will continue to apply. As for the plan for Serbia and Kosovo, I believe that even in Belgrade they are becoming more and more aware that not accepting the agreement with Kosovo means further stagnation of the country and even regression. I believe that despite the strong pro-Russian sentiments and the Kremlin's influence on Belgrade, the Vucic regime understands how important Serbia's entry into the EU is. Serbia is a country which, due to its role in the wars in the area of ​​former Yugoslavia, as well as due to its malicious policy towards its neighbors, has the least right to make similar mistakes.

Q: For years we have been hearing phrases like "Europe is not complete without the Western Balkans", "peace in the Balkans means peace in Europe", and on the other hand, the Balkans have become a region in which Russia is trying to increase its influence and cause serious problems. In that context, how functional is the INGE 2 Board regarding external interference in all democratic processes in the EU?

- As a full member of that Board, I act together with my fellow MPs, some of whom are extremely interested in the situation in the region. We have also addressed the problem of the destructive Russian influence in the Western Balkans in the amendments to the latest report that should be adopted at the end of May. I emphasize the importance of the work of that Board, which in the current circumstances is more important than ever, then I note the increased interest in the Russian aggression against Ukraine. It was also influenced by the recent revelation that some corrupt MPs were abusing their influence for the benefit of third countries. The fight against such threats to democracy must be an increasingly prominent priority for the European Parliament and other EU institutions. We will certainly feel the result of our efforts through the turnout and results of the future elections for the European Parliament. Citizens want their vote to be really worth something, to be able to vote in a safe democratic environment and based on authentic, not false, information.

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