After three days of debate, lawmakers in North Macedonia backed a French proposal to remove Bulgaria’s veto on the Balkan nation’s EU membership talks on July 16.
The compromise calls for an effort to amend the Macedonian Constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, but it leaves other previously unresolved issues to be worked out between Skopje and Sofia. It reportedly leaves the door open for Bulgarian recognition of Macedonian.
It was passed with 68 votes in the 120-seat National Assembly after opposition lawmakers walked out after weeks of accusations from some that the agreement amounts to a national cultural betrayal.
Only four years after Macedonians agreed to a name change to appease neighbor Greece and two years after Bulgaria invoked its veto on EU talks, the compromise could pave the way for rapid progress toward formal negotiations for Macedonian membership in the bloc.
Last month, the French Presidency of the European Union laid out mutual concessions to resolve differences between Macedonians and Bulgarians over their shared national language and culture.
For the past two years, Sofia has vetoed a framework for North Macedonia accession, but has endorsed the French deal.
Thousands of Macedonians demonstrated in Skopje this week, and police were deployed to bar protesters from entering the parliament during the first two days of debate.
On July 14, opposition lawmakers blew horns as Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski urged them to accept an imperfect deal that would lead to “ultimately a better future.”
Approximately 100 protesters gathered outside the parliament on the final day of debate and passage, calling for the French proposal to be rejected.
North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years, but its approval has been thwarted twice by Greece, over a name dispute settled in 2018, and now by Bulgaria, both of which are EU members.
Opponents of the compromise worry that it will wreak havoc on national identity and culture, and that it will fail to address future Bulgarian objections to EU membership.
“With this agreement, Macedonia will be a hostage to Bulgaria because it will exercise a veto based on whatever condition we fail to fulfill [in the EU accession process],” Petar Risteski, a lawmaker from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE, warned Reuters. “Therefore, be brave and stand by the truth, justice, and the Macedonian people.”
After reports that Paris floated the compromise late last month, rock-throwing and other unrest erupted.
The Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute has heightened regional resentments and threatens to erode Balkan faith in the European Union further.
Before debate began on July 14, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Skopje to urge North Macedonia’s parliament to approve the deal, saying, “We want you in the EU.”
In anticipation of approval in Skopje, the Bulgarian parliament lifted its veto last month, causing unrest in the country and contributing to a no-confidence vote that brought down Kiril Petkov’s government.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell both stated recently that advancing North Macedonia and Albania toward EU membership is especially important to the continent in light of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.