The main opposition in North Macedonia has demanded a referendum be held over the so-called “French proposal” aimed at resolving the country’s long-standing dispute with Bulgaria.
Earlier this month, a slim majority of the members of North Macedonia’s parliament voted in support of the French proposal to clear the way for European Union accession talks. In total, only 68 members in the 120-parliament voted in favor of the proposal after opposition lawmakers walked out.
Hours later, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski announced that North Macedonia would begin EU accession talks on July 19.
“Finally, after 17 years, we begin the accession negotiation process,” he wrote on Twitter, “From today onwards, we are moving forward with an accelerated step to join the European family in which our Macedonian language will be heard very soon and officially.”
The controversial French proposal is in accordance with Bulgaria’s demands that North Macedonia change its constitution to acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and introduce hate speech to North Macedonia’s criminal code.
The compromise represents an effort to amend the Macedonian Constitution to recognise a Bulgarian minority while leaving other sticking points to be further discussed between Skopje and Sofia. The French proposal reportedly also leaves open the issue of Bulgarian recognition of the Macedonian language.
The deal would also see the removal of the EU’s block on negotiations with Albania.
Thousands of Macdonians have come out in protest over the deal. The July 2 rally, backed by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, saw tens of thousands of people gather in Skopje earlier this month.
According to VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing opponents, the French proposal concedes too much to Bulgaria in the two countries’ long-standing struggle over history, language, identity and culture.
“This is a crime against the whole nation. Such a grave mistake has never happened since independence,” argued Aleksandar Nikoloski of VMRO-DPMNE.
In December last year, Bulgaria’s incoming prime minister Kiril Petkov pledged a new commitment to finding common ground in the dispute, and end Bulgaria’s long-running obstruction of accession talks between the EU and North Macedonia.
“We are on the right side of Nato and EU policies, 100 percent,” Petkov told reporters in December, “We will propose a new process [on North Macedonia], very fast, with a limited timeframe, just six months long.”
Petrov accepted the French proposal before he was ousted in a no-confidence vote on June 22, accused by his allies of “national betrayal” for lifting the veto on North Macedonia’s membership in the EU.
Bulgaria became a member of the EU in 2007.