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EU wants North Macedonia in bloc


SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia received a boost Thursday from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the country’s hopes of finally joining the European Union amid a dispute with Bulgaria.

“We want you in the EU,” von der Leyen said in the Macedonian language in a speech to the parliament of North Macedonia.

Von der Leyen has pledged his support for a French proposal that will pave the way for membership talks for the small Balkan country and eliminate Bulgaria’s objections.

“Bilateral issues, such as history issues, are not membership requirements,” von der Leyen told North Macedonia’s parliament. “There is no doubt that Macedonian is your language.”

She added that the “French proposal also respects your national identity” and said it was time for North Macedonia to move forward.

The difficulty of selling the French compromise proposal was evident as thousands of protesters outside the parliament building denounced the proposal as a betrayal. Even inside parliament, when most lawmakers stood respectfully and applauded von der Leyen, she was briefly interrupted by whistles and shouts.

The proposal, announced by French President Emmanuel Macron at the NATO summit in Madrid last month, contemplates concessions from both sides. North Macedonia’s government 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 ruling Social Democrats and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski support the proposal as a reasonable compromise. The government believes that the agreement does not endanger national interests or identity and paves the way for the country’s accession to the EU.

“I said ‘yes’ because this European proposal is the best solution at the moment,” Kovacevski told lawmakers.

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.

Legislator Dafina Stojanovska of VMRO-DPMNE angrily tore up the papers of the document and said that “no document you sign will have legitimacy until it receives the most important seal, which is the seal of the people”.

Political tensions in North Macedonia have increased over the past 10 days, with several violent overnight protests.

The debate on the French proposal began with seemingly irreconcilable differences between the ruling left-wing coalition and the centre-right opposition. Opposition lawmakers are obstructing the speeches of MPs from the ruling coalition, blowing loudly with whistles and trumpets.

Protesters sang a national anthem on Thursday and chanted “Never the North, always Macedonia!” also questioning the deal North Macedonia reached with Greece in July 2018, ending a decades-old dispute over the country’s name and helping to clear Greece’s objections to joining the North Macedonia in the EU and NATO.

Police said five people were arrested for throwing “solid objects” at the parliament building.

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

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.

In Bulgaria, the centrist government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was overthrown in a vote of no confidence on June 22 when allies called Petkov’s drive to lift North Macedonia’s veto a “national betrayal”.

The parliamentary debate in North Macedonia is expected to last at least two days before the vote on the French proposal. But if the ruling coalition, which has a simple majority in parliament of 61 seats out of 120, can pass it, it faces a major obstacle with the revision of the constitution to officially recognize a Bulgarian minority. This requires a two-thirds majority, or 80 votes.

The VMRO-DPMNE coalition and a small left-wing party, with 46 seats between them, say they will never agree to change the constitution.