Lawmakers in North Macedonia have passed a French-brokered deal aimed at settling a dispute with Bulgaria, clearing the way to long-due European Union membership talks.
A total of 68 lawmakers from the 120-seat parliament voted in favour of the agreement on Saturday. Opposition politicians did not participate in the vote and left the room.
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The deal proposes that North Macedonia’s constitution be amended to recognise a Bulgarian minority, while the remaining issues be discussed between Skopje and Sofia. The proposal does not require Bulgaria to recognise the Macedonian language.
In exchange, Bulgaria will allow its West Balkan neighbour to start membership talks with the EU. After the agreement was adopted, governing party deputies rolled out EU and North Macedonian flags.
Later on Saturday, after a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski announced that North Macedonia will start accession talks with EU on July 19.
“With this, we conclude another objectively historical step for our country. We have a negotiating framework in which the Macedonian language and identity are protected,” he said.
Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel took to Twitter to congratulate North Macedonia.
“It was a historic opportunity and you seized it,” wrote von der Leyen, calling it a “big step on your path towards a European future”.
🇲🇰 Congratulations to North Macedonia on the vote that now paves the way for opening the accession negotiations rapidly.
It was a historic opportunity.
And you seized it.
A big step on your path towards a European future. Your future.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) July 16, 2022
“Our future is together and we welcome you with open arms,” Michel tweeted.
Today's vote in @SobranieRSM paves the way to holding intergovernmental conference with North Macedonia next week.
A crucial step for 🇲🇰 and for 🇪🇺
Our future is together and we welcome you with open arms.
— Charles Michel (@CharlesMichel) July 16, 2022
The main opposition nationalist VMRE-DPMNE party bloc has spearheaded daily protests since the beginning of July over a deal they have said endangers the Macedonian language and identity.
Bulgaria’s parliament lifted its veto on Macedonian-EU talks last month, which also triggered protests in Bulgaria and contributed to a no-confidence vote that toppled the government.
North Macedonia has been waiting since 2008 to begin EU accession talks. First, Greece objected to the country’s membership because of claims to the name “Macedonia,” which prompted the switch to the name “North Macedonia”.
Then Bulgaria put a block on Skopje’s bid in a dispute about the origins of the Macedonian language, treatment of Bulgarian minorities in North Macedonia and questions about shared history.
France, which had the EU Council presidency until last month, worked out the compromise, which Bulgaria approved in June.
However, nationalist opposition parties in North Macedonia, as well as some liberal critics, have said that they worry that the nature of the deal would still allow Bulgaria to veto the country’s EU membership.
Von der Leyen visited Skopje this week to assure lawmakers that accession talks would not be delayed by bilateral discussions on historical interpretation and assured them the deal recognises Macedonian as a language.