EU urges North Macedonia to support proposed deal with Bulgaria

SKOPJE, North Macedonia — European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday urged North Macedonia to back a compromise proposed by France to end a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that is blocking the country’s bid to join the European Union, long delayed.

Violent protests erupted in North Macedonia’s capital Skopje, where protesters attempted to storm government buildings, after French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal – which many in the tiny Balkan country find controversial – last week. Macron told a NATO summit in Madrid that a “compromise solution” to lift Bulgaria’s opposition to its neighbor’s European aspirations had been found, without giving details.

A new demonstration against the French proposal is scheduled for later Tuesday in Skopje.

North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski and the government have backed the proposed deal, which calls on the country to recognize in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews of how the bilateral dispute is being handled, which could potentially hamper North Macedonia’s future accession path.

But the main centre-right opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, many international law experts and civic organizations say the proposal favors Bulgarian claims that challenge their own country’s views on history, language, regional identity and heritage.

As a member of the EU, Bulgaria has the power to block its neighbor’s application for membership.

In a joint press conference on Tuesday with North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski, Michel stressed that the French proposal was “too big an opportunity to miss”.

Michel said that if North Macedonia accepts the proposal, the way for the country to start EU membership talks could open in a few days.

Kovachevsky reiterated his support for the “balanced proposal”, adding that “our goal is to start accession negotiations”.

In a third day of mass protests on Monday night in Skopje, protesters threw rocks, eggs and bottles at government offices and the parliament building in downtown Skopje. Police prevented the crowd of several thousand people from entering government offices. Four policemen were injured in front of the parliament.

Bulgaria has already formally accepted the French proposal, which now requires the support of the North Macedonian parliament.

Bulgaria insists that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, recognize a Bulgarian minority and quash “hate speech” against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. The country has been given the green light in 2020 to start accession negotiations, but no date has been set for the start of negotiations.

Before Bulgaria raised its objections, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with fellow neighbor and EU member Greece to advance its goal of joining the 27-nation bloc. As a result, he added the word North to his old name, Macedonia, which Greece had complained about implicit claims to its own territory, history and cultural heritage.

The dispute with Bulgaria has also blocked the progress of another Balkan country, Albania, towards EU membership, as the bloc treats the pair as a political package. North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania are all members of NATO.

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