Envoys from Bulgaria, North Macedonia meet on EU bloc talks

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SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — The foreign ministers of Bulgaria and North Macedonia met in Sofia on Sunday to discuss the next steps of North Macedonia’s path to EU membership talks, a day after the parliament in Skopje voted in support of a French proposal that should lift Bulgari’s veto of North Macedonia joining the bloc.

EU member Bulgaria had until recently held up any progress for those accession talks, accusing North Macedonia’s government of disrespecting shared cultural, linguistic and historic ties.

Both countries agreed on “extremely ambitious short-term and long-term measures, which in practice aim to solve many of the open issues,” Bulgarian Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska told reporters.

“Bulgaria is the country that most strongly supports the European integration of the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania; hence we wish them success on the path they have long wanted to take. With joint efforts and with our support, they will reach what the citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia most want to reach — membership in the EU,” Genchovska said.

Her counterpart, Bujar Osmani, said his country is counting on Bulgaria’s support and expressed hope that bilateral ties are entering a new phase.

“It is a historic opportunity for us that after 17 years with the status of a candidate country for membership, the Republic of North Macedonia gets the opportunity to start negotiations with the EU,” said Osmani.

North Macedonia will start accession talks with EU on July 19, its prime minister announced Saturday.

Bulgaria’s National Assembly already has approved the French proposal, but legislators set additional conditions for agreeing to North Macedonia’s EU membership. They included protection for Bulgarians living in North Macedonia by including them in its constitution on an equal basis and no assumption that Bulgaria would recognize Macedonian as a separate language from Bulgarian.

The size of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia is a matter of contention. Official data from the 2021 census put it at 3,504 people, or about 0.2% of the population. Bulgaria has doubted the figure, noting that about 90,000 of North Macedonia’s roughly 2 million people have received dual Bulgarian citizenship over the last two decades based on family roots. About 53,000 more applications are pending.

The deal would also unblock the start of negotiations for neighboring Albania, another EU hopeful. The EU prospects of the Western Balkan countries gained increased attention in the wake of the bloc’s efforts to bring Ukraine closer following the Russian invasion.

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