Lawmakers in North Macedonia have backed a controversial French-brokered deal that aims to settle a dispute with Bulgaria and open the way for EU membership talks.
Opposition lawmakers disrupted the vote with shouts and a walkout, but it passed with 68 votes in favour in the 120-member parliament.
The proposal, which was not made public since it was suggested in late June, sparked daily protests in the country’s capital Skopje with thousands gathered in front of key government buildings for almost two weeks.
North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years, but the beginning of talks was blocked first by Greece -- which was resolved by the 2019 Prespa Agreement -- only to be followed by the Bulgarian veto in 2020.
The GERB-led government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov blocked the negotiations claiming North Macedonia's history, culture, and language are all derived from Bulgaria.
Under the so-called French proposal, North Macedonia would commit to changing its constitution to recognise a Bulgarian minority, and undergoing an annual review by EU institutions of its relations with Sofia.
According to the 2021 census, there were some 3,500 ethnic Bulgarians in the Western Balkan country of 2.08 million.
About 97,000 Macedonians have acquired Bulgarian citizenship in the past two decades -- a trend that escalated once Bulgaria entered the bloc in 2007.
The two countries signed a treaty on good-neighbourly relations in 2017, setting up a bilateral commission tasked with resolving historical disputes.
However, it will not be easy for North Macedonia to revise its constitution.
The task would require a two-thirds majority to approve the amendment, and the country’s main opposition party, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, has said it will not back the change.
'Historic opportunity seized', says European Commission head
Despite this hurdle, the international community has praised Saturday’s vote.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the vote “paves the way for opening the accession negotiations rapidly”.
She travelled to Skopje on 14 July to urge lawmakers to back the deal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also welcomed the vote, applauding “the difficult tradeoffs considered in this compromise, which acknowledges and respects North Macedonia’s cultural identity and the Macedonian language.”
The citizens are divided on the issue, with some concerned that the Bulgarian side might continue to insist on its original demands, including the question of language.
“I am not satisfied,” one man told Euronews about the vote. “I am Macedonian, not Bulgarian. We have been Macedonians for generations. Whoever wants to be Bulgarian, let him be. I am Macedonian and this agreement is bad.”
However, another man said he was undecided: “To tell you the truth, I am not committed to any side. But I still think it will be better now.”
The EU will start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia next Tuesday.
North Macedonia is set to have two initial Intergovernmental Conferences to mark the beginning of membership talks -- a precedent some think could complicate and prolong the accession paths of other potential member countries as well.
It will also be tasked with complying with the bloc's standards through 35 thematic chapters, which has proven to be a lengthy process for the likes of Serbia and Montenegro.