North Macedonia votes to settle dispute with Bulgaria, paving way for EU talks

North Macedonia votes to settle dispute with Bulgaria, paving way for EU talks
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SKOPJE, July 16 (Reuters) – Lawmakers in North Macedonia on Saturday approved a French-brokered deal aimed at settling a dispute with Bulgaria and clearing the way for long-dated talks on European Union membership.

The 120-seat parliament voted 68 votes in favor of the agreement. The opposition deputies did not take part in the vote and left the room.

“Today we are opening a new perspective for our country… starting today we are moving towards joining the EU family at accelerated steps,” Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski said in a news conference after his cabinet approved the conclusions reached between his government and Parliament of the EU would take place on Tuesday.

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The deal provides for North Macedonia’s constitution to be amended to recognize a Bulgarian minority. The proposal does not require Bulgaria to recognize the Macedonian language.

In return, Bulgaria will allow its Western Balkans neighbor to begin accession talks with the EU. After the agreement was passed, MEPs from the ruling party rolled the EU and North Macedonia flags.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who traveled to Skopje and called on lawmakers to vote on the deal on Thursday, said the vote “paves the way for a speedy opening of accession negotiations”.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose country has been held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia, said an Albanian delegation will travel to Brussels on Monday to start accession talks.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the vote, saying Washington “acknowledges the difficult compromises that have been considered in this compromise, which recognizes and respects North Macedonia’s cultural identity and the Macedonian language.”

The leader of the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Hristjan Mickoski, whose party has been protesting the deal since early July, said “nothing was over”. He added that his party would not support constitutional amendments that require two-thirds of the vote. The Bulgarian parliament last month overturned its veto on Macedonia-EU talks. This also sparked protests in Bulgaria and contributed to a vote of no confidence that overthrew the government.

North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years, but agreeing to talks was blocked first by Greece and then by Bulgaria.

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Reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Ognen Teofilovski; Editing by Christina Fincher

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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