EU urges N Macedonia to back proposed deal with Bulgaria

SKOPJE, North Macedonia — European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday urged North Macedonia to support a compromise proposed by France on ending a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that is blocking the country’s long-delayed accession request.

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 small Balkan country find controversial — last week. Macron said at a NATO summit in Madrid that “a compromise solution” had been reached to lift Bulgaria’s opposition to its neighbor’s EU aspirations, without giving details.

Several hundred people took part in another protest against the French proposal in Skopje late Tuesday. Held during a downpour, it ended peacefully.

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 course.

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

As an EU member, Bulgaria has the power to block its neighboring country’s accession bid.

At a joint press conference Tuesday with the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovachevski, Michel emphasized that the French proposal is too “important an opportunity to pass up”.

Michel said that if North Macedonia accepts the proposal, the road for the country to start accession negotiations with the EU could begin within days.

Kovachevski reiterated his support for the “balanced proposal,” adding that “our goal is to start membership talks.”

On a third day of mass protests late Monday in Skopje, protesters threw rocks, eggs and bottles at government offices and the parliament building in central Skopje. Police prevented the crowd of several thousand from entering government buildings. Four police officers were injured in front of parliament.

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

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

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

Before Bulgaria objected, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with another neighboring country and EU member, Greece, to put forward its goal of joining the 27-nation bloc. As a result, it added the word North to its previous name, Macedonia, which Greece had complained of implying claims to its own territory, history and cultural heritage.

The dispute with Bulgaria has also stalled 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 NATO members.

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