The crisis in the European Union (EU) membership process due to the language-history conflict between North Macedonia and Bulgaria began to be resolved with the proposal proposed by France in June 2022. The proposal was approved by the Bulgarian Parliament on 24 June 2022. However, the Skopje administration requested the proposal to be updated in line with the following:
- Historical issues should not be presented as a criterion in negotiations.
- Macedonian history and language need to be respected and preserved clearly and unequivocally.
- It is necessary to ensure that Bulgaria will not have any further demands.
- Any decision regarding EU negotiations must be consulted with the North Macedonian institutions.
Despite the mentioned issues, proposals from the Paris administration started to be discussed in the North Macedonian Parliament. This proposal divided politics in the country, and protest demonstrations were held under the leadership of the most prominent Macedonian opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovacevski, responded to the claims that Macedonians will be assimilated and Bulgarianisation the proposal mentioned above from the opposition with the words “We have identified positions for the clear acceptance of the Macedonian language. The Macedonian language included in the proposal is strictly equivalent to other EU languages. We got what we’ve been fighting for years. No one will be able to assimilate the Macedonian people, which is a fact.”
Despite the harsh reactions of the opposition, the North Macedonian Assembly accepted the proposal on 16 July 2022, which would allow the country to start accession negotiations with the EU and remove Bulgaria’s veto. There were no rejection or abstention votes, and deputies from the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE left the assembly at the time of the vote. Kovachevski, on the other hand, stated that supporting France’s proposal was a sign of patriotism. However, the fact that VMRO-DPMNE President Hristijan Mickoski said that they are planning to take the process to a referendum by collecting 150,000 signatures within two weeks indicates the tension in the country will continue. Therefore, there is a possibility that Macedonian nationalists will take more drastic actions in the coming days. Although removing the Bulgarian obstacle to the EU membership of North Macedonia increases the potential of the country’s joining the Union, it can be predicted that the tension in domestic politics will continue for a long time.
Following the approval of the French proposal by the Government of North Macedonia, the “bilateral protocol,” which is one of the key documents for starting negotiations with the EU, was signed between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia and Bulgaria in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. That protocol includes the joint commemoration of historical figures and events by North Macedonia and Bulgaria, changes in history and geography books, and avoiding territorial claims and hate speech in both countries. However, according to the signed protocol, North Macedonia, which has been a candidate for the EU for 17 years, will not be able to open a chapter with the EU without including the Bulgarians in the constitution. A two-thirds majority of the 120-seat parliament for the realization of this situation requires a constitutional amendment; that is, 80 deputies are needed. In the current case, it can be said that the coalition government does not have this support. In addition, the division in domestic politics raises some questions about the practical applicability of the bilateral protocol. Bulgaria declared that it would continue to see the Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian. The resigning Bulgarian Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska revealed how difficult it is to put the signed protocol into practice by saying, “Bulgaria does not back down from its position on the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia.”
The North Macedonian Assembly passed France’s proposal to facilitate EU membership benefited Albania the most. Because the EU membership process of Albania, which has had a candidate status since 2014, is progressing together with North Macedonia. Therefore, the country cannot start accession negotiations with the EU due to Bulgaria’s veto over North Macedonia. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama frequently expresses his discomfort with the situation.
In the light of all these developments, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the EU had officially started membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as of 19 July 2022 and described the development in question as a “historic moment.” In this context, the first intergovernmental conference was held in Brussels on 19 July 2022 with the participation of the two countries’ prime ministers. EU Commission President Leyen, EU Term the President Czech Republic Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Albanian Prime Minister Rama, and North Macedonia Prime Minister Kovachevski made a joint press statement regarding the start of accession negotiations.In her opinion, Leyen emphasized that the two countries took essential steps in the rule of law, fight against corruption, freedom of the press, civil society, and economic reforms. Rama also said that the negotiations could take a long time. Kovachevski said: “It is a great source of satisfaction that we are finally officially starting negotiations after 17 years.” he has commented.
As a result, although a historic step has been taken for the membership of Albania and North Macedonia to the EU, the accession of the two countries to the Union depends on the outcome of the negotiation process, which will continue for many years. In summary, it may take time for the parties to implement all the laws, rules, and regulations of the 27-member Union. In addition, it can be said that the process will be more difficult for North Macedonia. As stated above, North Macedonia will not be able to start negotiations without including Bulgarians in the constitution within the framework of the signed bilateral protocol. It does not seem possible to make a constitutional amendment in the country due to the harsh reaction of the opposition. Although steps that can be described as a turning point have been taken within a week, difficult days await Skopje on the way to the EU. On the other hand, Albania’s job will be easier compared to North Macedonia. However, bilateral relations and internal problems will play an essential role in the EU membership process. In this context, Albania is expected to implement many reforms, especially in the fight against corruption and the rule of law.
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