North Macedonia’s parliament approves deal; European negotiations start on July 19

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia has approved a French proposal that paves the way for negotiations to join the European Union and overcome Bulgarian objections.

There were 68 votes in favor of the proposal in the 120-member chamber, the left-wing coalition, which has 61 seats, winning support from smaller ethnic Albanian parties. Opposition lawmakers walked out of the chamber in protest, abstaining from voting.

Demonstrators again gathered outside Parliament, as they have done every day for 10 days, but the protest ended peacefully.

Under the proposal, announced by French President Emmanuel Macron last month, North Macedonia would commit to changing its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and ban hate speech, as requested by the Bulgaria, member of the EU since 2007.

The deal would also unlock the start of negotiations for neighboring Albania, another EU hope.

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

But revising the constitution may prove too big a hurdle, as it requires a two-thirds majority, or 80 votes. The main opposition center-right VMRO-DPMNE party and its allies, as well as a small left-wing party, with 46 seats among them, said they would never agree to change the constitution.

Later on Saturday, after a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski announced that North Macedonia would start accession talks with the EU on July 19.

“With this, we conclude another objectively historic milestone for our country. We have a negotiating framework in which the Macedonian language and identity are protected,” he said.

The country’s ruling coalition supported the proposal as a reasonable compromise that does not endanger national interests or identity, while the opposition denounced it as a national betrayal that yields to questioning by the Bulgaria of the history, language, identity, culture and heritage of North Macedonia.

The French proposal also rocked Bulgaria, where Prime Minister Kiril Petkov accepted it. His centrist government was toppled in a vote of no confidence on June 22 when allies described Petkov’s push to lift North Macedonia’s EU veto as a “national betrayal”.

EU and US leaders welcomed North Macedonia’s decision to back the deal.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, called the parliament’s vote “a crucial step for North Macedonia and the EU. Our future is together and we welcome you with open arms.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “this decision comes at a critical time for North Macedonia, the Western Balkans and Europe.”

“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,” Blinken said in a statement.

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