With a two-year delay, the European Union officially launched accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in July. This was a long-awaited move in two countries that have pursued painful reforms to progress towards EU membership but faced significant obstacles, particularly from EU member Bulgaria.
Sofia decided to halt Skopje’s EU accession process, which was ‘coupled’ with Tirana’s, due to disagreements with neighbouring North Macedonia over the Bulgarian minority, history, and language. On a similar veto from Greece, North Macedonia already changed its name in the attempt to progress towards the EU membership. However, soon after Bulgaria opened a new by insisting that the Northern Macedonian identity and language are of Bulgarian origin and that Bulgarians are there oppressed, hence demanding that their protection be included in the in North Macedonian Constitution.
Only after Skopje’s Parliament voted in favor of reaching a compromise on the long-standing dispute with neighbouring Bulgaria — based on the so-called ‘Macron proposal’ — did North Macedonia and Albania receive the bloc’s green light to begin accession talks formally. As per the accord, North Macedonia would commit to changing its Constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights, and ban hate speech, as Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, has demanded. Macron emphasized that the proposal does not call into question the existence of a Macedonian language. Still, he added that, like all deals, it “rests on compromises and a balance.”
Several experts on the Balkans criticized Macron’s proposal. The political analyst Florian Bieber said on Twitter that the proposal is “a disaster for enlargement,” as “it achieves little and holds great dangers”. The proposal “incorporates the bilateral dispute into the EU negotiating process, giving legitimacy and encouragement to future EU members blocking accession countries,” Bieber underscored. He further noted that “it essentially accepts the nationalist logic” behind the Bulgarian government claims “that there is an issue of discrimination against Bulgarians in North Macedonia.”
The French proposal sparked also massive street protests in Skopje and other North Macedonian cities, led by nationalists and left-wing and pro-Russian groups, with authorities in Skopje warning that Moscow could be behind the protests. Thousands of people demonstrated for days, even clashing with police and throwing plastic bottles, water balloons, stones, and eggs at government buildings in the capital. Demonstrators claimed the proposal “Bulgarianizes” the country and failed to recognize the Macedonian language and history. The main opposition party in North Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE, and other right-wing and left-wing opponents demanded that the government rejects the plan, claiming it conceded too much to Bulgaria in the long-running dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.
While Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski said the French proposal was a “solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country,” opposition parties left Parliament in protest. Eventually, they abstained from voting on the proposal, which received support from 68 MPs in the 120-member Chamber.
After the green light of the North Macedonian Parliament, the EU welcomed the “historic” vote that “has opened a door and an intergovernmental conference will launch the process of negotiations, a long-awaited process,” the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said. “Congratulations to North Macedonia on the vote that now paves the way for opening the accession negotiations rapidly,” EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen also said. “At this critical moment in European history, marked by the unjustifiable aggression carried out by Russia against Ukraine, advancing Albania and North Macedonia’s EU path is key to strengthening the cohesion and resilience of the entire European continent,” the US Department of State underscored.
Soon after, the EU began formal negotiations with both countries. The EU has “just agreed to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, wrote on Twitter. “We have taken another important step towards bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU,” Fiala said.
The Commission will now begin its screening process with representatives from Albania and North Macedonia in what is expected to be a lengthy and complicated process that will last years, as demonstrated by the examples of Montenegro and Serbia, which have been negotiating with the EU for nearly a decade. Even though several EU member states, including Slovenia, advocated for Bosnia and Herzegovina to be granted candidate status, EU leaders did not take the step at their most recent meeting in the summer, a move that could lead to more instability in the region.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.