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Bulgaria, North Macedonia envoys meet for EU bloc talks

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

EU member Bulgaria had until recently delayed any progress in these accession talks, accusing North Macedonia’s government of disrespecting shared cultural, linguistic and historical ties.

The two countries have agreed on “extremely ambitious short-term and long-term measures, which in practice aim to solve many open problems,” 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; that’s why we wish them success on the path they’ve wanted to take for a long time. With joint efforts and with our support, they will achieve what the citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia most want to achieve – EU membership,” Genchovska said.

His counterpart, Bujar Osmani, said his country counted on Bulgaria’s support and expressed hope that bilateral relations would enter a new phase.

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“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 has the opportunity to start negotiations with the EU,” Osmani said.

North Macedonia will start accession negotiations with the EU on July 19, its Prime Minister announced on Saturday.

The Bulgarian National Assembly has already approved the French proposal, but lawmakers have set additional conditions for accepting North Macedonia’s EU membership. They included the protection of Bulgarians living in North Macedonia by including them in its constitution on an equal footing and without presuming 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 2021 census data puts it at 3,504 people, or about 0.2% of the population. Bulgaria doubted the figure, noting that around 90,000 of North Macedonia’s roughly 2 million people have received dual Bulgarian citizenship in the past two decades based on family roots. Approximately 53,000 additional applications are pending.

The deal would also unlock the start of negotiations for neighboring Albania, another EU hope. The European prospects of the Western Balkan countries have received increased attention following the bloc’s efforts to bring Ukraine closer together after the Russian invasion.

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