North Macedonia takes step toward starting EU accession talks

North Macedonia’s parliament on Saturday gave Skopje’s government the go-ahead to resolve a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria, paving the way for EU membership talks to begin.

After three days of heated debate, 68 lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament voted to pass draft conclusions based on a French proposal which is designed to persuade Bulgaria to lift a veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession path.

Under the French compromise, which is a hard sell in the country, North Macedonia must commit to changing its constitution in order to recognize a Bulgarian minority in the country and introduce other new measures to protect minority rights and banish hate speech on the basis of Bulgarian demands.

Opposition lawmakers, who strongly oppose the deal, abstained from voting and left the room. After the vote, MPs from the socialist-led government rolled out flags of the EU and North Macedonia. 

Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski thanked the MPs who voted in favor. “Finally, the Macedonian language will echo everywhere in Europe,” he said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who traveled to Skopje on Thursday to urge MPs to support the deal, and European Council President Charles Michel welcomed the result of the vote.

Von der Leyen said Thursday that, if the deal was supported, the Commission could begin its screening process immediately with accession negotiations starting “as soon as next week.”

But hurdles remain. Constitutional changes in North Macedonia require a two-thirds majority in parliament and the opposition has repeatedly said it won’t back them.

Protests against the deal — many of which have turned violent — have been held in Skopje on a near-daily basis since July 1, when the government announced it would support the compromise. Opponents of the deal say it threatens North Macedonia’s national identity and makes too many concessions to Bulgaria’s claims that the country’s language and ethnicity are rooted in Bulgarian.

North Macedonia has been an EU candidate since 2005. It was already obliged to change its name in 2018, from “Macedonia,” to overcome a Greek veto which had held up its progress toward joining the EU and NATO. It finally joined the military alliance in 2020.