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US official voices hope North Macedonia will be able to proceed with EU membership bid

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — A senior U.S. State Department official on Friday voiced hope that North Macedonia will be able to approve politically difficult constitutional changes that would help its bid to join the European Union.

Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Balkan policy, said during talks in the capital Skopje that the U.S. strongly backs the country's EU accession bid.

North Macedonia has agreed, following pressure from neighboring EU member Bulgaria, to amend its constitution and include Bulgarians in a long list of ethnic groups formally listed as living in the country.

But while Parliament started the amendment process last week, it looks unlikely that it will be completed due to strong reactions from the conservative main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE.

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Following talks with North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski, Escobar said he was “very excited" that the process had started. “I hope it will continue,” he added.

The amendment — which would also add a formal mention of other groups, including Croatians, Montenegrins, Slovenians and Jews — requires an enhanced two-thirds Parliamentary majority for approval. But VMRO-DPMNE, which controls 44 of the 120 seats, is resisting the change and accuses Bulgaria of trying to impose its will on Skopje.

The constitution already lists Albanians, Turks, Serbs and Roma among other ethnic groups living in the small Balkan country.

Escobar met later Friday with VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski, who according to a party statement refused to budge on the proposed amendment and called for early elections.

North Macedonia and Albania started membership negotiations with the EU in July last year, in a process expected to take years.

North Macedonia has been a candidate to join the bloc since 2005. The country solved a long-lasting name dispute with neighboring Greece in 2018. But then Bulgaria objected over language and cultural disputes, insisting it would not let North Macedonia join the EU unless it lists a Bulgarian ethnic minority in the constitution.