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EU and US urge North Macedonia to go ahead with EU candidacy

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SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — European Union and U.S. leaders are urging North Macedonia’s parliament to accept a French proposal that will bring the small Balkan country closer to EU membership and overcome objections from Bulgaria.

“At this critical moment in European history, marked by Russia’s unjustifiable aggression against Ukraine, advancing Albania and North Macedonia on the path to the EU is essential to strengthen cohesion and the resilience of the entire European continent,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a joint statement on Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

“We welcome a compromise proposal that takes into account the interests and concerns of North Macedonia and Bulgaria on the basis of mutual respect, trust and understanding. The sovereign decision of the Parliament of North Macedonia will be important moving forward,” they said.

“The European Union and the United States are committed to closer cooperation in the Western Balkans. Ensuring stability and prosperity and making their European and Euro-Atlantic future a reality remains our common goal,” they added.

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

Bulgaria used its power as an EU member to block North Macedonia’s membership.

Political tensions in North Macedonia have risen with violent overnight protests since French President Emmanuel Macron announced at the NATO summit in Madrid that he believed a “compromise solution” had been found.

Macron’s proposal contemplates concessions on both sides. The government in Skopje would pledge to change its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and ban hate speech, as demanded by Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007.

The French leader stressed that the proposal did not call into question the official existence of a Macedonian language, but he noted that, like all agreements, it “is based on compromises and on a balance”.

In North Macedonia, President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski’s government backed the proposal as a reasonable compromise. Accepting it “will neither be a historic triumph, as one side would call it, nor a historic failure or debacle, as those on the other side say,” Pendarovski said.

The government stressed that the proposal did not endanger national interests or identity. But the main centre-right opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, and others disagree, saying the deal favors Bulgarian demands that challenge Bulgaria’s history, language, identity, culture and heritage of North Macedonia.

In Bulgaria, the centrist government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was overthrown in a vote of no confidence on June 22. A junior ruling partner left the fragile four-party coalition, describing Petkov’s drive to lift North Macedonia’s veto as a “national betrayal”.

Bulgaria has accepted the French proposal, which now requires the support of the North Macedonian parliament. A plenary session has not yet been scheduled.