December 2, 2023

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) – European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday urged North Macedonia to support France’s proposed compromise on ending the conflict with neighboring Bulgaria that is blocking the country’s long-awaited bid to join the European Union.

violent protests It erupted in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, as protesters tried to storm government buildings, after French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal last week – which many in the small Balkan nation found controversial. Macron said at a NATO summit in Madrid that a “compromise” had been achieved to raise Bulgaria’s opposition to its EU neighbor’s aspirations, without elaborating.

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

The President of North Macedonia, Stevo Bendarovsky, and the government supported the proposed deal, which calls for the country to recognize in its constitution the presence of a Bulgarian minority. It will also provide for regular reviews of how the bilateral dispute is handled, which may hinder the path of Macedonia’s accession in the future.

But the center-right main opposition VMRO-DPMNE and many international law experts and civic organizations say the proposal favors Bulgarian demands that run counter to their country’s views on regional history, language, identity and heritage.

As a member of the European Union, Bulgaria has the power to block its neighbour’s accession bid.

At a joint press conference on Tuesday with North Macedonia’s prime minister, Dimitar Kovacevsky, Michel stressed that the French proposal was “a very important opportunity to be missed”.

Michel said that if North Macedonia accepts the proposal, the path for the country to start EU accession talks could open within days.

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

On the third day of mass protests late Monday in Skopje, protesters threw stones, eggs and bottles at government offices and the Parliament building in downtown Skopje. Police prevented a crowd of several thousand people from storming government offices. Four policemen were injured in front of the parliament building.

Bulgaria formally accepted the French proposal, which now required the support of the Parliament of North Macedonia.

Bulgaria insists that North Macedonia officially recognizes that its language has Bulgarian roots, recognizes a Bulgarian minority and suppresses “hate speech” against Bulgaria.

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

Before Bulgaria raised its objections, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with another neighbor and EU member, Greece, to advance its goal of joining the 27-nation bloc. As a result, it added the word north to its former name, Macedonia, which Greece had complained of tacit claims to its lands, history, and cultural heritage.

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

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