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Scholz urges action over North Macedonia EU bid

June 11, 2022

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called on Bulgaria to withdraw its objection to North Macedonia joining the EU. The West Balkan nation was given the nod to start accession talks two years ago but progress has stalled.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkow in Sofia on June 11, 2022
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov in SofiaImage: BGNES

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday called on Bulgaria to lift its veto on North Macedonia from starting European Union accession talks.

During a stop in Sofia on a two-day tour of the region, Scholz said the bloc should avoid dashing the membership hopes of the Western Balkans.

"I see chances for progress," he told a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. "We will stay in close exchange in the coming days."

Earlier in the day in Skopje, Scholz told his North Macedonian counterpart Dimitar Kovacevski that the accession negotiations that were firmly promised two years ago "must begin now ... I will push for this." 

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Kovacevski referred to Bulgaria's veto without mentioning the country by name.

He told reporters that "one EU member state... is holding two candidate countries, North Macedonia and Albania, as hostages on the path of EU integration."

Kovacevski added that he hoped the EU-Western Balkan leaders' summit on June 23 in Brussels would confirm the start of accession negotiations. 

"Chancellor Scholz's visit is a strong signal that Berlin recognizes that we meet the criteria," he said.

The German chancellor also spoke of a new willingness among EU member states to allow the Western Balkans into the bloc since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

He said he hoped the Berlin process, which has been trying to move the process forward, "will be revitalized." 

Regional disputes 'not unsurmountable'

Scholz also said that he felt progress had been made in the several bilateral disputes in the region — referring to relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria as well as Kosovo and Serbia.

"They are not insurmountable problems," he said, adding that "these things cannot be decreed, they have to be brought about together."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski in Skopje on June 11, 2022
Scholz has wrapped up a two-day tour of the West Balkans, which included a stop in SkopjeImage: Boris Grdanoski/AP Photo/picture alliance

The European Commission gave the green light in principle for accession talks to begin with North Macedonia and Albania in July 2020. 

However, the process has been blocked by Bulgaria over the rights and written history of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia.

Bulgaria and North Macedonia have long sparred over history and language, including Bulgaria's claim that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian.

They both also lay claim to certain historical events and figures, mainly from the Ottoman era.

North Macedonia has carried out many other reforms in its bid to become an EU member, such as changing its name from Macedonia to meet Greek objections over its region of Macedonia.

Six nations at different stages

The six countries of the Western Balkans — North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo — were offered the prospect of EU accession almost 20 years ago.  But the countries are at different stages of membership talks. 

Serbia and Montenegro have already started negotiating some chapters of their membership agreements. 

Kosovo and Bosnia have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward membership.

mm/kb (AFP, dpa, Reuters)