EXPLAINER: North Macedonia: A thorny road to the EU

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Nightly protests in North Macedonia over the past week have left dozens injured. At the center 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 latest obstacle is a veto by EU member Bulgaria. a french proposal over a compromise to address Bulgarian concerns has divided North Macedonia, sparking sometimes violent protests. France’s plan also met with deep objections. in Bulgarian and helped to overthrow the government, which had accepted the compromise.


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 for centuries, it was plagued with problems from the start.

The country’s chosen name, Macedonia, sparked outrage in neighboring Greece, which said the term harbored expansionist goals 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 offers for years, until a deal was reached in 2019 that included the smaller country changing its name to North Macedonia.

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

The size of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia is controversial. Official data from the 2021 census puts it at 3,504 people, or about 0.2% of the population. Bulgaria has doubted the figure, pointing out that around 90,000 of North Macedonia’s roughly 2 million people received dual Bulgarian citizenship in the last two decades based on their family roots. Some 53,000 more applications are pending.


The EU offer from North Macedonia is linked to a similar offer from neighboring Albania. Both countries see joining the 27-nation bloc as a means of ensuring stability and prosperity in an increasingly unstable world. The EU’s prospects for the Western Balkan countries gained further attention in the wake of the bloc’s efforts to bring Ukraine closer after the Russian invasion.


France held the rotating EU presidency between January and June, so it has been deeply involved in negotiations to break the deadlock. EU leaders held a summit with Western Balkan Nations last month, during the same week, they presented Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for EU membership.

French President Emmanuel Macron had hoped to present the unblocking of the EU’s offers from North Macedonia and Albania as a great success. On Thursday, the French Embassy in Skopje published a message from Macron.

“Once again, North Macedonia has reached a turning point in its history. Seventeen years after receiving candidate status, a historic opportunity opens up: …. The choice is yours,” she said.

Macron’s proposal contemplates concessions from both sides. The Skopje government would commit to changing its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and ban hate speech.

The French leader stressed 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.”


The compromises in the French proposal led to ruptures in both countries.

The centrist government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was overthrown in a no-confidence motion on June 22. A junior ruling partner has resigned from the fragile four-party coalition and described Petkov’s willingness to lift the veto on North Macedonia 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 set additional conditions for accepting North Macedonia’s membership in the EU. They included adequate 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, both President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevsk’s government backed the proposal as a reasonable compromise. Accepting it “will be neither a historic triumph, as one side would call it, nor a historic failure or debacle, as the other side says,” Pendarovski said.

The government has stressed that the proposal does not endanger national interests or identity. 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.

Biljana Vankovska, a law professor at the Institute for Security, Defense and Peace at St. Cyril and Methodius University, criticized the French proposal for giving in to “Bulgaria’s nationalist and chauvinist demands.”

“It is unbelievable that a small nation is being asked to cede its language, its history and its powers to write a constitution to outside powers to start the EU accession process,” he said.

Political analyst Albert Musliu, head of the Association for Democratic Initiatives think tank, argued that the proposal offers North Macedonia an opportunity to start membership talks with the EU.

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


Bulgaria has accepted the French proposal, which now requires the support of the North Macedonian parliament. The text is now at committee level in parliament. No plenary session has been scheduled.


Toshkov reported from Sofia, Bulgaria. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed


Follow AP coverage of the European Union at https://apnews.com/hub/european-union


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