North Macedonian parliament approves deal to launch EU bid

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North Macedonia has approved a French proposal which paves the way for negotiations to join the European Union and overcome Bulgarian objections.

There were 68 votes in favor of the proposal in the 120-member chamber, the left-wing coalition, which has 61 seats, winning support from smaller ethnic Albanian parties.

Opposition MPs left the hemicycle in protest, abstaining from voting.

Protesters again gathered outside parliament, as they have done every day for more than 10 days now. The demonstrations sometimes turned violent.

Under the proposal, announced by French President Emmanuel Macron last month, North Macedonia would commit to changing its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and ban hate speech, as requested by the Bulgaria, member of the EU since 2007.

The deal would also unlock the start of negotiations for neighboring Albania, another EU hope.

Mr Macron had stressed that the proposal did not call into question the official existence of a Macedonian language, but he had noted that, like all agreements, it “is based on compromises and a balance”.

A policeman holds his shield during a protest outside the parliament building in Skopje (AP)

But revising the constitution may prove too big a hurdle, as it requires a two-thirds majority, or 80 votes.

The main opposition center-right VMRO-DPMNE party and its allies, as well as a small left-wing party, with 46 seats among them, said they would never agree to change the constitution.

Lawmakers also voted to ensure that negotiations with the EU are conducted on an equal and principled basis, in accordance with the norms of international law, with full respect for the Macedonian language and the national identity.

The country’s ruling coalition supported the proposal as a reasonable compromise that does not endanger national interests or identity, while the opposition denounced it as a national betrayal that yields to questioning by the Bulgaria of the history, language, identity, culture and heritage of North Macedonia.

“This is a crime against the whole nation. Such a serious mistake has never happened since independence,” said VMRO-DPMNE MP Aleksandar Nikoloski.

The French proposal also caused problems in Bulgaria, where Prime Minister Kiril Petkov accepted it.

His centrist government was toppled in a vote of no confidence on June 22 when allies described Mr Petkov’s drive to lift North Macedonia’s EU veto as a “national betrayal”.

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