6th Jun 2023

North Macedonia to finally open EU accession talks

  • North Macedonia is already a Nato ally (Photo: nato.int)
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North Macedonia is to finally open accession talks with the EU on Tuesday (19 July) after MPs backed a deal to end Bulgaria's veto.

"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," prime minister Dimitar Kovachevski said in Skopje on Saturday announcing the move, AP reports.

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The intergovernmental conference (IGC) to mark the step will be a pure formality, with real accession negotiations to start after the summer and likely to take years.

But the IGC still represents a breakthrough for Skopje and for EU enlargement policy more broadly after a series of vetos had held back North Macedonia and Albania, as well as visa-free travel for Kosovo.

And it comes amid galloping Western concern that Russia is trying to claw back influence in the Western Balkans.

Kovachevski spoke after MPs earlier on Saturday voted by 68 out of 120 to back a compromise deal with Bulgaria.

Bulgaria had called for North Macedonia to change its constitution to recognise a Bulgarian minority. It also wanted Skopje to admit its language and culture had Bulgarian roots in bilateral protocols attached to the formal EU "negotiation framework".

France, which chaired the EU Council until July, drew up a compromise which blunted some of the sharp edges in Sofia's demands.

And the EU foreign service and US state department had piled on pressure for Skopje to go ahead.

The vote was "a crucial step for North Macedonia and the EU. Our future is together," EU Council president Charles Michel said Saturday.

"A European Union that includes all of the Western Balkans, including Albania and North Macedonia, will be stronger and more prosperous. Now is the time to build momentum," US secretary of state Antony Blinken said.

He also spoke of "the difficult tradeoffs considered in this compromise, which acknowledges and respects North Macedonia's cultural identity and the Macedonian language".

The deal remains wildly unpopular with North Macedonia's nationalist VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, however.

The VMRO-DPMNE has been whipping up anti-government protests over the issue, which saw tens of thousands of people on the streets of the capital in recent weeks.

And "nothing was over" VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said Saturday, Reuters reports.

Street protests aside, North Macedonia will have to get the Bulgaria constitutional amendment through parliament before the EU negotiations can begin in earnest.

Although only a simple majority vote was needed to accept the deal in principle and open accession talks, one of the clauses in the deal is a constitutional amendment which will require a two-thirds majority.

And Mickoski's anti-EU deal coalition in parliament has some 46 MPs in its ranks — enough to rob the government of the two-thirds majority it would need to get the amendments through.

The North Macedonia IGC paves the way for a similar opening with Albania, whose bid was tied to its neighbours in the EU process.

"This is not the end of the road but only the beginning of a new part of the road we want Albania to be in," Albanian prime minister Edi Rama said in Tirana on Saturday, AP reports.


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