That European Union on Monday agreed to start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje finally settled a longstanding dispute with its EU neighbor Bulgaria.
The start of accession talks comes after North Macedonia and Bulgaria on Sunday signed a French proposal that would make Macedonian an official language in the EU and offer other guarantees.
North Macedonia’s parliament on Saturday voted in favor of the proposal, which paves the way for Bulgaria to lift its veto on the country’s joining the bloc.
EU member states “just agreed to start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia!” tweeted Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, whose country holds the rotating EU Council Presidency.
“We have taken another important step to bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU,” he added after being given the go-ahead at a meeting of EU envoys in Brussels.
EU member Bulgaria had until recently held up any progress in these accession talks, accusing the government of North Macedonia of flouting common cultural, linguistic and historical ties.
The European Union on Monday agreed to start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje finally settled a longstanding dispute with its EU neighbor Bulgaria
The start of accession talks comes after North Macedonia and Bulgaria on Sunday signed a French proposal that would make Macedonian an official language in the EU and offer other guarantees
North Macedonia’s parliament voted in favor of the proposal on Saturday, paving the way for Bulgaria to lift its veto on the country’s joining the bloc. However, opposition lawmakers walked out of the session before voting in protest
The dispute also blocked Albania’s bid to join the 27-nation bloc over a long-held policy of handling both countries’ ambitions to join the EU together.
The concessions require North Macedonia to recognize a Bulgarian minority in its constitution, recognize that the Macedonian language derives from Bulgarian and ban hate speech
However, the agreement in North Macedonia’s parliament was far from unanimous, as opposition MPs abstained and dropped out.
Skopje has been rocked by late-night protests against France’s proposal for the month of July, as nationalist elements within the country protest what they see as concessions to neighboring countries damaging their national identity.
In 2017, North Macedonia – formerly just Macedonia – settled another long-standing dispute, this time with southern neighbor Greece over the country’s name.
Greece viewed Macedonia as a Greek name that Macedonia had usurped as a Slavic country and vetoed its EU membership.
A compromise was reached to rename the country North Macedonia and Greece dropped its opposition, only for Bulgaria to step in with a new veto and a fresh round of complaints.
But as domestic opposition was pushed aside, the foreign ministers of Bulgaria and North Macedonia met in Sofia on Sunday to discuss next steps in North Macedonia’s path to EU accession talks.
Demonstrators gathering in front of the government building clash with police officers during a protest against the French proposal to settle the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria on July 5 in Skopje
People lit torches and threw eggs and stones at the Foreign Ministry building during a protest in Skopje as protesters tried to storm government buildings on July 5 after French President Emmanuel Macron announced a proposal for North Macedonia to make concessions to Bulgaria would do
The protest was backed by main right-wing opposition party VMRO-DPMNE and other opposition groups against a French proposal aimed at ending a dispute with Bulgaria that would require Skopje to include ethnic Bulgarians ‘on an equal footing with other peoples’ in its constitution’ and history textbooks change
Supporters of the opposition party VMRO DPMNE and other citizens are chanting anti-government slogans
Both countries agreed on “extremely ambitious short- and long-term measures, which in practice aim to solve many of the outstanding problems,” Bulgarian Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska told reporters.
“Bulgaria is the country that most supports the European integration of the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania; so we wish them every success on the path they have been wanting to take for a long time. With joint efforts and with our support, they will achieve what the citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia want to achieve most – membership of the EU,” Genchovska said.
Her counterpart Bujar Osmani said his country is counting on Bulgaria’s support and expressed hope that bilateral relations will enter a new phase.
“It is a historic opportunity for us that after 17 years with the status of a candidate country, the Republic of North Macedonia is given the opportunity to start negotiations with the EU,” Osmani said.
North Macedonia will start accession talks with the EU on Tuesday, its prime minister announced on Saturday.
The Bulgarian National Assembly has already approved the French proposal, but lawmakers have set additional conditions for approval of North Macedonia’s EU membership.
They included protecting Bulgarians living in North Macedonia by including them in the constitution on an equal footing, and no assumption that Bulgaria would recognize Macedonian as a separate language from Bulgarian.
But many people in North Macedonia are outraged by the concessions.
“We don’t want anyone to destroy our history, our future, because we are Macedonians,” protester Robert Cvetkovski told Al Jazeera at a rally in Skopje.
“Bulgaria said our language is Bulgarian. They changed our name a few years ago. We’re here because we don’t like it. We are Macedonians and we speak Macedonian,” said student Tijana Stojanovska.
The size of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia is disputed. Official data from the 2021 census put them at 3,504 people, or about 0.2% of the population.
Bulgaria has cast doubt on the figure, noting that about 90,000 of North Macedonia’s roughly 2 million residents have been granted dual Bulgarian citizenship over the past two decades due to family roots. Approximately 53,000 other applications are pending.
The deal would also unlock the start of negotiations with neighboring Albania, another EU hope. The EU prospects of the Western Balkan countries have gained increased attention amid the bloc’s efforts to bring Ukraine closer after the Russian invasion.