From: Georgi Gotev,
Charles Michel Pushes Skopje for Compromise as Protesters Throw Rocks

On a visit to Skopje, Council President Charles Michel urged North Macedonia on Tuesday (5 July) to back a French-proposed compromise on ending a dispute with Bulgaria that has blocked the country’s bid to join the EU, while people opposed to the EU mediation threw stones at government buildings.

Supporters of the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE party and other citizens threw stones during a protest against the French proposal to resolve the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Skopje.

Michel is on a mission to reassure the public in North Macedonia that the compromise doesn’t encroach on the country’s “red lines” regarding national identity and the Macedonian language, at a time when the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE accuse the centre-left government of Dimitar Kovacevski of opening the door of “Bulgarisation” of the Macedonians, by accepting the compromise crafted by France.

While the EU summit was still ongoing on 24 June, the Bulgarian parliament accepted the French proposal, unlocking the door for North Macedonia starting accession negotiations.

North Macedonia’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, and the government have backed the proposed deal, which calls for the country to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews on how the bilateral dispute is being addressed.

However, the proposal struggles to pass in the parliament in Skopje, where the opposition and junior coalition partners have mobilized against it.

Michel told a news conference that long-delayed accession talks could begin immediately if it accepted the proposal.

“Personally, I am absolutely convinced that this is a balanced solution that addresses your main concerns. The goal is clear: to start North Macedonia’s accession talks and to finally move forward to build our common EU future”, Michel said.

The Council President said that if Skopje says ‘yes’, the first intergovernmental conference will be organised in the next few days and the next steps will follow immediately.

“Importantly, this proposal clearly refers to the Macedonian language, without qualification by the EU. The Macedonian language is your language and the proposal respects that. The acquis, the EU legislation, will all be translated into Macedonian”, said Michel, in an effort to reassure the critics of the French proposal.

“We are also very aware of the concerns expressed by some regarding your national identity. You can count on my full support, as President of the European Council, to systematically stand up for your legitimate rights”, Michel said.

Critics of the French proposal say that it opens the door to denying national identity of the Macedonians.

Michel also mentioned the expected change of the constitution of North Macedonia, to add the Bulgarians among the ethnicities of which the country is composed.

“If you change the constitution, it will be seen as a further commitment to these high standards. It will automatically — without need for further decision — trigger the second Iintergovernmental conference, and it will automatically complete the opening of the negotiations”, Michel said.

The Council president stressed that the decision lies with the Macedonian people., of course, lies with you.

“It is your sovereign choice […] Macedonians, you have an historic opportunity to say ‘yes’: ‘yes’ to the start of negotiations, ‘yes’ to the EU, ‘yes for our children. Your country has a chance to once again become an enlargement frontrunner”.

Speaking alongside Michel, Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski said the European proposal, which he called “favourable for us”, incorporates Skopje’s remarks.

In what appears to be an attempt to counter false allegations from the opposition, he said that the French proposal was publicly available, and that the bilateral protocol with Bulgaria will be published as well.

Kovacevski said that the European proposal was securing “what we have been waiting for 17 years”, referring to the time lost since the country received the candidate status, and that it was fully compliant with the country’s parliament resolutions regarding the disputes with Bulgaria.

He also stressed that the European proposal had a “well-defined position for a clear and unambiguous acceptance of the Macedonian language”, and that the Macedonian language was therefore equal to all EU languages., without any footnotes or explanations.

“The amended, defined and supplemented French proposal gives us what we had been fighting for years – clear formulation of the Macedonian language”, the prime minister said, adding that the European proposal makes all speculations alluding to the contrary “false and untrue”.

The French proposal is also called “European proposal”, as it was put on the table when France had the presidency of the Council of the EU.

“We are proud of our identity, so far, nobody has been able to assimilate Macedonian people, and that’s a fact”, Kovacevski said.

He explained that the open issues with neighbours should be closed, but this would be done in a way “dignified and right” for both parties.

He further said that the bilateral protocol with Bulgaria was not included in the negotiating framework, adding that “it is a bilateral protocol, it is not part of the European package”.

“These are two unrelated process that coincide in time”, he said.

Mirroring Michel’s remarks, Kovachevski said that the country can start negotiations immediately after the North Macedonia parliament accepts the European proposal.

“We should use this historic chance for the progress of the country”, he said, adding “we will keep our red lines and we will continue so far in the future”.

Dušan Reljić, the head of the Brussels Office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told EURACTIV that Charles Michel’s proposal “fuels the political and ethnic polarisation in that country”.

“This is so because a significant part of the country’s citizens believe that the proposal essentially promotes the goals of Bulgarian nationalists vis-à-vis the Macedonians”, the analyst explained.

According to him, what Macedonians need to hear is that in future, governments in Sofia will not able to continue to make use of the EU accession process to extract further concessions from Skopje in regard to bilateral disputes about history, language and ethnicity.

“The EU risks a further loss of political credibility in southeast Europe. It could easily turn out that the President of the European Council had left the government in Skopje with no choice except to endorse his proposal if it wanted to start membership talks ever. At the same time it is unreliable if the EU institutions will be able to keep their assurances that if Skopje cooperates, Brussels will deliver also”, Reljic said.

Eric Maurice, head of the Brussels office of the Robert Shuman Foundation, was more optimistic.

He said that the compromise proposed by France does not please nationalists both in Bulgaria and North Macedonia, but it will allow negotiations to begin.

“For North Macedonia, it is a price to pay for something more important, which is its real national interest: a process of integration towards the EU”, Maurice said.