French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to play an active role in resolving the Sofia-Skopje dispute with the aim of paving the way for the accession of North Macedonia to the European Union.
The French president intends to invite his Bulgarian counterpart Rumen Radev and the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovačevski, to sign an agreement on resolving bilateral disputes.
In fact, there was an announcement from the Elysee Palace, after Macron's telephone conversations with Radev and Dimitar Kovačevski.
"France has been seeking a solution to the dispute for several weeks and Macron is ready to attend and host a bilateral meeting that will lead to the start of negotiations with the EU," the French presidency said in a statement.
The French president's telephone conversation with the two countries' leaders is the second in less than a month.
The information transmitted by Bulgarian media is that the proposal of the French presidency is for all Bulgarian demands to be included in the negotiating framework. However, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev clarified that if he does not see results, he will not go to Paris.
According to media in Skopje, France does not have a specific solution proposal for resolving the disputes between Sofia and Skopje, but the Foreign Ministries of Bulgaria and North Macedonia are looking for it immediately.
For his part, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, reiterated that Bulgaria will not make decisions under pressure and reiterated the request for the registration of Bulgarian nationality in the Constitution of North Macedonia.
The deadline for a solution is June 23, when the announced EU conference on the Western Balkans will take place, one day before the regular meeting of European leaders.
Elsewhere, speaking ahead of an EU summit in late June which is set to debate enlargement, Kovačevski said Skopje had demonstrated its commitment and dedication, through tough decisions, but the EU still has not agreed to open accession talks.
“We cannot make and break our governments before and after every EU summit – it is simply unsustainable,” he said, warning that enlargement is no longer “only a broad question of enlargement for itself, nor is it only a political or economic question”.
“After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and in light of the influence from third parties in the Western Balkan region, which are the most vulnerable on the European continent, enlargement has become a security question,” Kovačevski told EURACTIV on the sidelines of the GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava.
EU leaders are set to meet with their six Western Balkans counterparts, including two countries already in accession talks and two candidates, on 23 June, before a crucial EU summit meant to discuss Ukraine’s potential candidate status in the bloc.
Albania and North Macedonia, though official candidates, have been in the waiting room for years, blocked by issues of corruption, and asylum as well as, in the case of Skopje, a veto from neighbouring EU member Bulgaria.
“North Macedonia has been an EU candidate country for 17 years, and during these 17 years, we have shown our commitment and our dedication towards this process of integration,” Kovačevski said, adding his country has harmonized 45% of its legislation with the bloc and reorganised its institutions.
“We have made many tough decisions for the country, one of them being the Prespa agreement, with which we were able to solve the name dispute with neighbouring Greece and to become members of NATO,” he said, referring to the landmark 2018 agreement.
“At the same time, the EU didn’t manage to deliver on the start of the negotiations and North Macedonia and Albania are kept practically hostages in the enlargement process, upon request of Bulgaria,” he added.
Sofia has been blocking Skopje’s EU membership path due to disputes over history and the origin of the Macedonian language but faces pressure from its Western allies in the EU to unblock the issue.
Since Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed a landmark friendship agreement in 2017, a joint commission focused on history has been working to bridge their serious historic disagreements.
But according to both countries, there has been no progress on the issue.
“Up to this moment, there is no document which can be agreed by both sides,” Kovačevski confirmed to EURACTIV.
“Historical commissions are nothing new, there are similar ones that work between other countries – between Germany and Poland or between North Macedonia and Greece – which find historical facts and should be the basis between those countries,” he said.
“But they should not be instrumentalised by any of the sides that are working on it, because those sensitive questions can be misused in a political sense and create negative public opinion,” he added.