SCOPEZ, Northern Macedonia (AP) – European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday urged northern Macedonia to support a French-proposed compromise to end a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that is blocking the country’s long-delayed bid to join the European Union.
Violent protests erupted in the northern Macedonian capital, Skopje, where protesters tried to storm government buildings after French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal – which many in the small Balkan country consider controversial – last week. At the NATO summit in Madrid, Macron said “a compromise solution” had been reached to lift Bulgaria’s opposition to its neighbor’s EU aspirations, without elaborating.
A new protest against the French proposal is planned in Skopje after Tuesday.
The president of northern Macedonia, Steve Pendersky, and the government have backed the proposed agreement, which calls on the country to recognize the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority in its constitution. It will also provide for regular review of how bilateral disputes are being dealt with, which could potentially impede the future accession of Northern Macedonia.
But the center-right main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, many international legal experts and civil society groups say the proposal favors Bulgarian claims that dispute their own country’s views on regional history, language, identity and heritage.
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As an EU member, Bulgaria has the power to block bids joining its neighbor.
At a joint news conference with Northern Macedonian Prime Minister Dmitry Kovachevsky on Tuesday, Michel stressed that the French proposal was a “very important opportunity to miss”.
Michel said that if Northern Macedonia accepted the offer, it could pave the way for talks to begin in the country’s accession to the European Union in a few days.
Kovachevsky reiterated his support for the “balanced proposal” and added that “our goal is to start membership talks.”
On the third day of mass protests in Skopje late Monday, protesters hurled stones, eggs and bottles at government offices and parliament buildings in the town center of Skopje. Police forced thousands of people to enter the government office. Four policemen were injured in front of the parliament.
Bulgaria has already formally adopted the French proposal, which now needs the support of the northern Macedonian parliament.
Bulgaria insists that Northern Macedonia formally acknowledges that its language has Bulgarian roots, recognizes a Bulgarian minority, and rejects “hate speech” against Bulgaria.
Northern Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. The country got a green light to start negotiations to join in 2020, but no date has been set for the start of negotiations.
Before Bulgaria raised its objections, Northern Macedonia settled a decade-old dispute with another neighbor and EU member, Greece, in a bid to join the 27-nation bloc. As a result it has added the word North to its previous name, Macedonia, which Greece complained of implicit claims on its own territory, history and cultural heritage.
The dispute with Bulgaria has stalled progress for another Balkan country, Albania, towards EU membership because the bloc is considering the pair as a political package. Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania are all NATO members.
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