By KONSTANTIN TESTORIDES Associated Press
SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia received a boost Thursday from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the country’s hopes of eventually joining the European Union amid a dispute with Bulgaria.
“We want you in the EU,” von der Leyen said in the Macedonian language in a speech to the North Macedonian parliament.
Von der Leyen pledged his backing for a French proposal that will pave the way for the small Balkan country’s accession talks and remove Bulgaria’s objections.
“Bilateral issues, such as historical issues, are not conditions for accession,” von der Leyen told the North Macedonian parliament. “There can be no doubt that Macedonian is their language.”
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He added that the “French proposal also respects its national identity” and said that it is time for North Macedonia to move forward.
The difficulty of selling the French compromise proposal was evident when thousands of protesters outside the parliament building denounced the proposal as a total surrender. Even inside parliament, as most lawmakers respectfully stood and applauded von der Leyen, she was briefly interrupted by whistles and shouts.
The proposal, announced by French President Emmanuel Macron at the NATO summit in Madrid last month, sees concessions from both sides. The North Macedonian government would commit to changing its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and ban hate speech, as Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, has demanded.
The ruling Social Democrats and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski back the proposal as a reasonable compromise. The government believes the deal does not endanger national interests or identity and clears the way for the country to join the EU.
“I said ‘yes’ because this European proposal is the best solution at the moment,” Kovacevski told lawmakers.
But the main center-right opposition party, the VMRO-DPMNE, as well as others, disagree, saying the deal favors Bulgarian demands that question the Macedonian history, language, identity, culture and heritage of the North.
VMRO-DPMNE legislator Dafina Stojanovska angrily tore up the papers of the document, saying, “no document I sign will have legitimacy until it receives the most important seal, which is the seal of the people.”
Political tensions in North Macedonia have been on the rise for the past 10 days, with several violent overnight protests.
The debate over the French proposal has begun with seemingly irreconcilable differences between the ruling left-wing coalition and the centre-right opposition. Opposition lawmakers are obstructing ruling coalition parliamentarians’ speeches, loudly blowing their whistles and trumpets.
On Thursday, protesters sang a national anthem and chanted “Never North, Always Macedonia!” also questioning the agreement that North Macedonia reached with Greece in July 2018, ending a decades-long dispute over the country’s name and helping to remove Greece’s objections to North Macedonia’s entry into the EU and NATO.
Police said five people were detained for throwing “solid objects” at the parliament building.
Macron has emphasized that the proposal does not question the official existence of a Macedonian language, but noted that, like all agreements, “it is based on compromises and a balance”.
North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. The country was given the green light to start accession talks in 2020, but no date has been set for the start of negotiations.
Bulgaria has used its power as an EU member to block North Macedonia’s membership.
In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s centrist government was toppled in a no-confidence motion on June 22 when allies described Petkov’s willingness to lift the veto on North Macedonia as a “national treason.”
North Macedonia’s parliamentary debate is expected to last at least two days before the vote on the French proposal. But while the ruling coalition, which has a razor-thin majority in the 61-seat parliament out of 120, can adopt it, it faces a major hurdle with revising the constitution to officially recognize a Bulgarian minority. This requires a two-thirds majority, or 80 votes.
The VMRO-DPMNE coalition and a small left-wing party, with 46 seats between them, say they will never agree to change the constitution.
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