German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, center, accompanied by North Macedonia s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, right, walks past the honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. AP
Bulgaria refuses to approve the EU's membership negotiation framework for North Macedonia, effectively blocking the official start of accession talks with its smaller Balkan neighbor.
Scholz said that ``the Western Balkans are of strategic importance'' for Germany and that his country is ``serious'' in supporting European integration of the region.
``North Macedonia and Albania deserve to start the membership talks,'' Scholz said at joint news conference with North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski in the capital, Skopje.
Bulgaria insists North Macedonia must formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, to mention a Bulgarian minority in its constitution and to stamp out allegedly anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. North Macedonia says its identity and language aren't open for discussion and that the solution must be based on European values.
Kovachevski said that North Macedonia has fulfilled all criteria to start membership talks with the EU, based on a ``merit system,'' and again called on EU leaders to give the green light for opening talks at the forthcoming EU summit on June 23.
``North Macedonia and Albania cannot be hostages in this process because of the only one EU member state blocking,'' Kovachevski said.
Scholz left Skopje and traveled to Bulgaria's capital where he reiterated that he strongly supports the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
Scholz _ speaking to reporters in Sofia, the final stop of his two-day tour to the region _ voiced optimism that progress will be made before the close of France's EU presidency on June 30.
The German chancellor discussed the war in Ukraine and the reduction of energy dependence on Russia with Bulgarian officials.
``I am convinced that we together, as Europeans, are responsible for the EU and for the stability of the Balkans. It is important that we use the enlargement process now, for the benefit of Europe,'' he said.
Scholz said that North Macedonia needs a solid European perspective and added that it wasn't easy to overcome the differences between the two Balkan neighbors.
``Our historical experience shows, however, that it is enriching for all countries when mistrust is overcome and friendly relations are built with neighbors,'' he said.
``It's very important to bring a new dynamic into this process,'' Scholz said after talks with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and added that North Macedonia must meet certain conditions to kick-start the process.
``I will advocate that the next steps happen,'' Scholz said.
``Bulgaria has three main priorities, about which the EU must be part of the guarantees, so that we can move forward _ through the European process, to ensure the inclusion of Bulgarians in the constitution of North Macedonia,'' Petkov said.
``At the same time, we have a framework position and a good-neighborliness agreement. So, each decision must include these three priorities,'' he said and added that the EU can provide potential opportunities to have European guarantees that this will happen.
North Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004 and received a positive assessment from the European Commission a year later.
EU leaders agreed to formal accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Skopje settled in 2018 a nearly three decade-long dispute with neighboring Greece over the country's name, which saw it renamed North Macedonia.
Western Balkan countries are at different stages of EU 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.