North Macedonia signals acceptance of plan to unlock EU membership talks

North Macedonia’s government has accepted a French proposal aimed at unblocking the country’s path to EU membership by compromising with Bulgaria over bilateral tensions.

Prime minister Dimitar Kovačevski said in a statement that ideas suggested by France, which has held the presidency of the EU for the past six months, were “the basis for opening a broad consultative process” in North Macedonia.

French president Emmanuel Macron said he believed “a compromise solution” had been achieved, without giving details. “This solution brings security . . . to all,” he told a news conference at Nato’s summit in Madrid.

Bulgaria, which had previously held a veto on the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia, ended its opposition in a parliamentary vote last week.

North Macedonia is one of a clutch of western Balkan states that have been waiting for years to join the EU. Membership talks have been given fresh impetus by the desire to strengthen the EU’s presence in the Balkans and provide a bulwark against greater Russian influence.

Albania has been linked with North Macedonia in its own bid for EU membership, so progress on Skopje’s accession plan would also unlock Tirana’s EU bid, with a potential wider impact for expansion in all of the western Balkans, experts say.

The tension between Bulgaria and North Macedonia has stemmed from disputes over interpretations of history and other expressions of national identity in the former Yugoslav republic.

Most Bulgarians do not recognise a distinct Macedonian identity and language and say the two countries essentially share a common history, while Macedonians insist on a right to a separate national identity, including language, history and culture.

Sofia wanted Skopje to change its constitution, history textbooks and public monuments to reflect a more favourable historical image of Bulgaria.

France put forward a proposal at a summit in Brussels last week under which Skopje would, among other things, recognise Bulgarian Macedonians as a distinctive minority and agree to regular assessments of its efforts to maintain good neighbourly ties. However, North Macedonia initially rejected the French ideas.

Kovačevski had said EU accession talks must begin before any constitutional amendments in Skopje were passed. He also demanded guarantees from the EU and Bulgaria that there would be no further conditions on accession.

It was not immediately clear what changed from last week but Kovačevski on Thursday thanked Macron for “efforts to overcome obstacles and preserve European credibility in the Balkans”.

The proposals from France would be discussed by the government and the coalition parties, Kovačevski said, adding that the president, opposition and the public would be consulted.

“We will make the decision for our future jointly.”

Kovačevski, a Harvard graduate and a former business executive who replaced the pro-EU Zoran Zaev at the helm of the Skopje government this year, has a fragile majority that includes the strong rightwing VMRO party, which has been hostile to any concessions to Bulgaria.

European Council president Charles Michel urged Skopje to agree to the proposal.

“Welcome solution for an agreement that would pave the way for opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia,” Michel wrote on Twitter. “The solution addresses concerns expressed. We are the closest we have ever been: now is the time to say yes.”

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