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North Macedonia backs compromise plan with Bulgaria, opening the way for EU membership

The government of North Macedonia said it had backed a deal that would settle an ongoing row with Bulgaria, and which would open the door for EU membership talks.

Socialist Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski met on Friday with junior government coalition partners to discuss a proposal from the outgoing French EU presidency aimed at overcoming a series of tensions between Sofia and Skopje over language, history, and the rights of ethnic Bulgarians in North Macedonia.

Kovačevski said “the proposal is considered a solid basis for building a serious, responsible and ambitious position regarding the opportunity being opened for our country.”

According to a senior official in North Macedonia, the government will be able to move ahead without parliamentary approval.

However, the French proposal puts conditions on the starting of accession talks — and that means changes to the constitution are needed, which would require a two-thirds majority in parliament. 

So the government can decide to start the membership process, including screening by the European Commission — which is preparation for accession negotiations to begin and typically takes around a year — and then deal with any constitutional changes.

Hristijan Mickoski, leader of the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, called the French proposal a “shame” and called for a protest against the deal on Saturday. Former Foreign Minister Nikola Dimtrov also said he was against the deal because it requires changes to the constitution before the accession negotiations officially get underway. 

French President Emmanuel Macron hinted on Thursday during a press conference at the NATO summit in Madrid that a compromise was imminent, and said he was convinced “we found a solution that suits the sensitivities of both sides” — though he didn’t provide details.

“Welcome news that North Macedonia and Bulgaria, with support of France, are close to an agreement which takes into account interests and concerns,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, after she had spoken on the phone with Kovačevski.

“The EU Commission is ready to start the screening process for North Macedonia and Albania, the next step on their European path,” she wrote.

North Macedonia is one of the Western Balkan countries that have been waiting for years to join the EU, a situation that has angered many leaders in the region. 

The Western Balkan countries’ EU prospects have moved back into the spotlight because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has prompted Kyiv, as well as nearby Moldova and Georgia, to apply for EU membership. Ukraine and Moldova have been granted candidate status.

Albania’s EU membership bid has been linked with North Macedonia, so progress on Skopje’s accession plan would also unlock Tirana’s EU bid.

Last week Bulgaria overturned Sofia’s effective veto on North Macedonia beginning EU membership talks by voting in favor of the French proposal.

Bulgaria insisted, however, on the need for proper constitutional protection for Bulgarians in North Macedonia and insisted that there would be no assumption that Sofia will recognize Macedonian as a separate language from Bulgarian. 

Bulgaria’s U-turn made life tough for North Macedonia’s prime minister, who just last week called the French-led compromise “unacceptable.”

Kovačevski said that a final version of the proposal, which was submitted this week, protected North Macedonia’s identity issues, including the Macedonian language, and promised that the entire process would be transparent.

“The decision on our future will be taken jointly, in accordance with the strategic interests of the country and all citizens,” Kovačevski said.

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