Explanation: what is behind North Macedonia’s long road to the European Union?

Nightly protests in North Macedonia over the past week have left dozens injured. At the heart of the turmoil is the small Balkan country’s long quest to join the European Union, a process that has faced one hurdle after another.

The most recent obstacle is a veto by EU member Bulgaria. A French compromise proposal to address Bulgaria’s concerns has divided North Macedonia, sparking sometimes violent protests. France’s plan also met with strong objections in Bulgaria and helped bring down the government, which had agreed to the compromise.

What is the dispute about?

North Macedonia has been an EU candidate for 17 years. The country emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and sought to forge a strong national identity. But in a region where borders and ethnicities have shifted and overlapped over the centuries, it has been plagued with problems from the start.

The name chosen by the country, Macedonia, sparked outrage in neighboring Greece, which said the term harbored expansionist aims against its own province of the same name and was an attempt to usurp Greek history and culture. . Athens delayed Skopje’s EU and NATO membership bids for years, until a 2019 deal was reached that included renaming the tiny country to North Macedonia.

But the following year, neighboring Bulgaria blocked the famed nation’s attempts to join the EU, accusing Skopje of disrespecting shared cultural and historical ties. Among Bulgaria’s main demands were recognition that the language of North Macedonia was derived from Bulgarian and recognition of a Bulgarian minority.

The size of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia is a matter of contention. Official 2021 census data puts it at 3,504 people, or about 0.2% of the population. Bulgaria doubted the figure, noting that around 90,000 of North Macedonia’s roughly 2 million people have received dual Bulgarian citizenship over the past two decades due to their family roots. Approximately 53,000 additional applications are pending.

People wave old and current national flags during a protest outside the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, Saturday, July 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)

Why is it important?

North Macedonia’s EU bid is linked to a similar bid from neighboring Albania. Both countries see joining the 27-nation bloc as a way to ensure stability and prosperity in an increasingly unstable world. The European prospects of the Western Balkan countries have attracted increased attention following the bloc’s efforts to bring Ukraine closer together after the Russian invasion.

What is the French proposal?

France held the rotating EU presidency between January and June and was therefore deeply involved in the negotiations to break the deadlock. EU leaders held a summit with Western Balkan countries last month, in the same week they nominated Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for EU membership.

French President Emmanuel Macron hoped to present the unblocking of European candidacies from North Macedonia and Albania as a major success. On Thursday, the French Embassy in Skopje published a message from Macron.

“Once again, North Macedonia has reached a crucial moment in its history. Seventeen years after being granted candidate status, a historic opportunity has opened up: …. The choice is yours,” he said.

Macron’s proposal contemplates concessions on both sides. The government in Skopje would pledge to change its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and ban hate speech.

The French leader stressed that the proposal did not call into question the official existence of a Macedonian language, but he noted that, like all agreements, it “is based on compromises and on a balance”.

People enter a tunnel while walking on a street during a protest in Skopje, North Macedonia, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)

How was the proposal received?

The compromises of the French proposal led to divisions in both countries.

The centrist government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was overthrown in a vote of no confidence on June 22. A junior partner in government has quit the fragile four-party coalition, describing Petkov’s drive to lift North Macedonia’s veto as a “national betrayal”. An early election could result in a stronger presence in parliament of nationalist and pro-Russian lawmakers.

The National Assembly has already approved the proposal, but lawmakers have set additional conditions for accepting North Macedonia’s EU membership. They included proper constitutional protection for Bulgarians living in North Macedonia, and no assumption that Bulgaria would recognize Macedonian as a separate language from Bulgarian.

In North Macedonia, President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevsk’s government backed the proposal as a reasonable compromise. Accepting it “will neither be a historic triumph, as one side would call it, nor a historic failure or debacle, as those on the other side say,” Pendarovski said.

The government stressed that the proposal did not endanger national interests or identity. But the main centre-right opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, and others disagree, saying the deal favors Bulgarian demands that challenge Bulgaria’s history, language, identity, culture and heritage of North Macedonia.

Biljana Vankovska, a law professor at the Institute for Security, Defense and Peace at Saint Cyril and Methodius University, criticized the French proposal as pandering to “Bulgaria’s nationalist and chauvinistic demands”.

“It is incredible that a small nation was asked to surrender its language, its history and its constitutional powers to outside powers in order to start the process of joining the EU,” she said.

People demonstrate outside the parliament building in Skopje, North Macedonia, Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, File)

Political analyst Albert Musliu, head of the Association for Democratic Initiatives think tank, said the proposal offered North Macedonia a chance to start accession talks with the EU.

“If you ask me if it’s fair, then yes, the proposal is unfair, but the international order is not based on fairness,” he said.

And after?

Bulgaria has accepted the French proposal, which now requires the support of the North Macedonian parliament. The text is now at the level of the parliamentary committees. No plenary session is planned.

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