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Bulgaria MPs approve lifting veto on North Macedonia EU talks

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Bulgaria has stymied North Macedonia’s ambition to start EU membership talks since 2020.

PHOTO: REUTERS

SOFIA (AFP) – Bulgaria’s parliament on Friday (June 24) approved lifting the country’s veto on opening EU accession talks with North Macedonia, an issue high on the agenda of an ongoing EU summit in Brussels.

“The decision is adopted with 170 votes in favour, 37 were against and 21 abstained,” parliament deputy speaker Atanas Atanasov said after the vote.

The proposal paves the way for the government to unblock the start of negotiations in exchange for EU guarantees that North Macedonia will meet Bulgaria’s demands on long-running historical and linguistic disputes.

The decision says that North Macedonia must include Bulgarians in its constitution “on an equal footing with other peoples”, sign a bilateral protocol and “effectively implement” a 2017 treaty of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation, ending hate speech.

“Ultimately, is in our interest for the Western Balkans, for North Macedonia and Albania, to receive a perspective to join the EU,” Hristo Ivanov, the co-chairman of the right-wing Democratic Bulgaria party who proposed the motion, said during the debate.

“Today’s decision allows us to link our demands with the fundamental European values and standards,” he added, urging parties “not to miss this good chance” to resolve the issue before France’s EU presidency ends on June 30.

“Know that we are doing the right thing… The strongest instrument for pressure is the negotiations process itself,” Ivanov said, adding that Bulgaria will be able to better defend its interests during the talks.

Bulgaria was the first country to recognise its neighbour’s independence after North Macedonia broke from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

But Sofia has stymied Skopje’s ambition to start membership talks since 2020.

France has been trying to mediate between the two countries and offered a proposal, as Brussels worried that the lack of progress for the Balkans could push the region closer to Russia and China.

Faced with mounting pressure from its EU partners and lack of support by public opinion at home, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said he favoured a compromise – while insisting that his government should receive a greenlight from parliament to approve lifting the veto.

Petkov’s policy of rapprochement towards Skopje was one of the reasons the anti-establishment ITN party pulled out of the ruling coalition earlier this month, which led to the toppling of his cabinet.

However a change in stance by the opposition conservative GERB party, whose government imposed the veto in 2020, and backing the Turkish minority opposition party MRF made the resolution possible.

Both parties voted in favour of the proposal, while the nationalist Vazrazhdane and anti-establishment ITN parties slammed it and voted against. The Socialist BSP party abstained.

Petkov said late on Thursday in Brussels that the lifting of the veto “could be approved (by the government) as quickly as possible” after the parliament have the greenlight.

However the change will only bring North Macedonia a small step closer to EU accession, as Bulgarian MPs vowed on Friday to defend the outstanding issues during the negotiations process – and be ready to impose new blockades if necessary.

Parliament’s decision on Friday notably insisted that “nothing in the EU accession process of North Macedonia can be interpreted as recognition by Bulgaria of the existence of a ‘Macedonian language’,” which Sofia considers as originating from a Bulgarian dialect.

North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski also poured cold water on the hopes for a solution, saying that the proposal was “unacceptable… in its current form”.

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