On the streets of Skopje - © Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

On the streets of Skopje - © Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

After accepting the compromise proposed by France, North Macedonia has opened EU accession negotiations. To make progress, however, it will be necessary to change the constitution and overcome the opposition of neighbouring Bulgaria

11/08/2022 -  Aleksandar Samardjiev Tetovo

North Macedonia is, once again, facing a challenging key moment in its recent history. Seventeen years after receiving candidate status, there is eventually a concrete chance for an active start of its negotiations for membership in the European Union. However, in order for the process to begin, the so called “French proposal” should be implemented to overcome disagreements with Bulgaria, a member state that repeatedly vetoed Macedonian accession to the Union.

Bulgaria has invoked its right to veto to block North Macedonia's bid since 2020: according to Sofia, the Macedonian language is simply Bulgarian by another name, while North Macedonia does not respect its common cultural and historical ties with Bulgaria. At the same time, Sofia demands that the Bulgarian minority should be officially included in the Constitution of North Macedonia.

The proposal that came from France on June 18 during Paris’ EU presidency offered a series of measures to overcome the current stalemate, measures that were accepted by the Macedonian government, while the opposition rejected them firmly.

After the French proposal was approved by the parliament in Skopje, North Macedonia held its first intergovernmental conference with the EU, but only as a first phase and an introduction to the official start. Actual negotiations with the EU are supposed to begin only when Macedonia includes the Bulgarian minority in its Constitution, a move which requires a two-thirds majority in parliament. Only then will it be possible to hold the second intergovernmental conference and the actual start of negotiations with the EU.

Annual reports on the implementation of the agreement and protocols with Bulgaria are also included in the course of the negotiations, or rather in the Negotiating Framework. That includes overcoming disputes about history, textbooks, hate speech, and the like. Bulgaria has the possibility to veto again if there is no agreement on these issues.

"I will not say our proposal is perfect, but it will clear your European path. Like any agreement, this one is based on compromises and balance”, French President Emmanuel Macron said. “This agreement does not call into question the official existence of the Macedonian language, which is an integral part of your identity".

Before the proposal was accepted, president of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen visited Skopje and took part in a session of the national assembly where she asked deputies to accept the compromise pushed by France.

“There is no doubt that the Macedonian language is your language. We fully respect that and that is why in the French proposal the naming of the language is ‘Macedonian’ without any criteria from the EU”, said Ursula Von Der Leyen. “The proposal also respects your national identity. I assure you that bilateral issues, such as the interpretation of history, are not conditions in the accession negotiations", she added.

On July 19, though, the Bulgarian government issued a unilateral statement reminding the EU member states that it does not recognise the existence of a Macedonian language, which it considers merely as a regional written form of the Bulgarian one.

Since the beginning of the summer the two main political forces in North Macedonia, the social-democrats (SDSM) currently in government and the opposition centre-right VMRO DPMNE, have been clashing over the issue. The current government does not have enough votes for the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to include the Bulgarian minority in the Constitution. VMRO DPMNE has loudly announced that they will not allow their votes to change the Constitution, warning that the proposal will allow Bulgaria to dictate the country's historical and political agenda.

“This is not a negotiation or a negotiating framework with which we secure our European future. This is a negotiation framework in which we either assimilate and ‘Bulgarise’ or we will never be part of the EU”, said leader of VMRO DPMNE Hristijan Mickovski.

“In the French proposal we have defined positions for clear and unambiguous acceptance of the Macedonian language. This was the most important question for us”, replied Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski. “I want to be crystal clear: the proposal puts bilateral historical issues outside the negotiation framework. The open issues with the neighbours should be closed, but we will have time for that when they are dignified and fair for both sides”, Kovacevski then added.

On July 16 the government adopted the motion passed by the parliament and officially made a decision to accept the proposal of the French presidency. On July 19 in Brussels, at the first intergovernmental conference, Prime Minister Kovacevski read his opening statement in Macedonian language.

In June and July, before the acceptance of the French proposal, protests were repeatedly held in front of the buildings of the government, the parliament, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The citizens in the streets asked not to accept this compromise. During some of those protests, clashes with the police were recorded, with injured people and detained protesters.

According to the demonstrators, North Macedonia has already been tricked by the European Union, considering Brussels’ promise that negotiations with the EU would begin immediately after the “name issue” with Greece was overcome. Although this happened in 2018, with Macedonia accepting to change its constitutional name into North Macedonia, negotiations were then stopped by Bulgaria’s veto.

During the July 6 protest, while demonstrators were marching through an Albanian neighbourhood in Skopje, an inter-ethnic clash with throwing of stones and objects was also recorded. Several members of the Albanian community shot guns in the air, then claimed they were defending themselves and their property from vandalism, and three people were arrested as a consequence.

VMRO-DPMNE insists now on a referendum against the French proposal, but does not specify what the referendum question would be. In the meantime, it is actively seeking political support from other parties in parliament and has started collecting signatures to call the referendum.

Prime Minister Kovacevski said that the referendum proposed by VMRO-DPMNE is irrelevant since the country has started negotiations for joining the EU. According to him, the initiative announced by VMRO-DPMNE is for domestic propaganda only and VMRO-DPMNE should clarify whether it wants to see the country in the EU or not.

Analysts appear to be divided, too: some believe that a referendum will have a negative effect with renewed tensions between citizens and little impact on the negotiation framework, while others argue that, since the people were not asked for their opinion on the French proposal, the only way to legitimise the compromise is either a referendum or early elections.

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