ISSN 2330-717X

North Macedonia Has ‘Historic Opportunity,’ EU’s Michel Says Amid Protests

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(RFE/RL) — European Council President Charles Michel has urged North Macedonia to back a French-proposed compromise on ending a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that has blocked the country’s bid to join the European Union.

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Michel told a news conference in Skopje on July 5 that long-delayed talks to admit North Macedonia into the EU could begin immediately if it accepted the proposal.

“Together we are on the verge of a possible breakthrough in your country’s EU accession process,” Michel said, speaking alongside Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski.

Michel said the country had a “historic opportunity” to agree to the beginning of negotiations and again become a “champion of enlargement.”

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

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal last week, saying he believed a compromise agreement was near.

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But the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in the dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

VMRO-DPMNE has attacked the French proposal as a “legalization of the assimilation of the Macedonian people,” accusing Kovachevski’s government of accepting “humiliations and distortions of identity.”

North Macedonia’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, and the government have backed the proposed deal, which calls for the country to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews on how the bilateral dispute is being addressed.

Violent protests against the proposal erupted over the weekend in Skopje. Tensions escalated during a new protest against the proposal on July 5.

Around 100 demonstrators threw rocks, Molotov cocktails, and other objects at the fence surrounding the parliament building and at the policemen defending it. Several policemen were hurt, but the police forces eventually pushed back and arrested several demonstrators.

Thousands of people protested the proposal the night before in Skopje. Some of the protesters threw paper towels, plastic bottles, water balloons, and eggs at government buildings in the capital.

Police prevented the crowd from forcing their way into government offices.

Bulgaria, which has already formally accepted the French proposal, insists that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, and quash “hate speech” against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. Bulgaria has been able to block the start of accession talks because unanimity is required under EU rules.

Before Bulgaria raised its objections, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with Greece, another EU member, by adding the word “north” to its name. Greece had complained that the name Macedonia implied claims on its own territory, history, and cultural heritage.

The dispute with Bulgaria has also stalled the progress of Albania toward EU membership because the bloc has tied its accession talks to those of North Macedonia.

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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