New Bulgarian PM proposes ‘very fast process’ to lift North Macedonia veto

The leader of the party 'Change continues', Kiril Petkov welcomes a colleague prior to the first session of the Parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria, 3 December 2021. [EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV]

The new Bulgarian government will propose a “very fast” new process that should help Sofia lift its veto and unlock the start of neighbouring North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations, Bulgaria’s new prime minister, Kiril Petkov, has told the Financial Times. The announcement was welcomed by Skopje.

“We will propose a new process [on North Macedonia], very fast, with a limited timeframe, just six months long,” Petkov was quoted as saying by the FT.

In a sign of detente between the two Balkan neighbours, North Macedonia’s acting Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had already spoken with Petkov and found common ground.

“We agreed to continue working on finding an acceptable solution to unblock the procedure for the start of negotiations for North Macedonia’s EU membership and for a new positive impetus to strengthen bilateral relations between our two countries,” Zaev posted on Facebook.

Petkov was sworn in as prime minister on Monday (13 December). After the first session of his cabinet on Tuesday, Petkov told reporters in Sofia that the two prime ministers had agreed to set up working groups to deal with the economy, culture, infrastructure, and common history.

“We will make an action plan in early January for these working groups to have real results with the aim to move forward in the negotiations,” Petkov said.

A North Macedonia source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to EURACTIV
that winds of change were being felt.

“We think the new government (in Bulgaria) is open to constructive dialogue,” the source said.

North Macedonia became a candidate for EU membership in December 2005 but has yet to open the talks.

New government marks end of political crisis

The inauguration of Petkov’s cabinet ended a political crisis in which two successive general elections, in April and in July, failed to elect a cabinet.

Petkov’s government consists of four parties – his centrist ‘Change continues’, the centre-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the centre-right ‘Democratic Bulgaria’, and the anti-system ‘There is such a people’. They jointly have 146 deputies in the 240-seat parliament.

Bulgaria has a pro-European leader and government after months of political crisis

Parliament on Monday finally elected a government headed by pro-European reformist Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. The country will be ruled by a complex multi-party majority involving two coalitions – the pro-European “Change Continues” and “Democratic Bulgaria”, supported by the Bulgarian …

However, according to information obtained by EURACTIV Bulgaria, the planned ‘very fast process’ with Skopje has not been coordinated with President Rumen Radev, who will represent Bulgaria at the 16 December EU summit.

According to reports, the summit has the ambition to solve the problem with the Bulgarian veto, but Radev has no plans to give ground before Skopje answers Sofia’s concerns.

According to information obtained by EURACTIV, the president was caught off-guard by Petkov’s strategies, although the two had been very close during the months of political crisis.

Sources familiar with the situation say Radev is not keen on having a limited timeframe to solve the veto issue, the risk being that Skopje could just wait for the time to pass instead of addressing Bulgaria’s concerns.

Among the various conditions for lifting the veto, Petkov mentioned in the interview only one. He said that in Macedonian history textbooks, Bulgaria should not be called “fascist”, referring to the current descriptions of Bulgarian troops that occupied what is today North Macedonia during World War II.

Bulgaria’s position is that North Macedonia “must show European maturity and respect for EU values” ​​by taking concrete action to end hate speech against Bulgaria in history textbooks, state and scientific institutions, public media, and stop appropriating or falsifying the Bulgarian cultural and historical heritage. A particular concern is related to the rights of Macedonian citizens who openly express their Bulgarian identity.

Skopje’s strategy has been to bank on the Western pressure on Bulgaria to lift the veto, without addressing Sofia’s concerns.

Bulgaria returns to ‘history’ in veto talks with North Macedonia

Bulgaria has not given up on its historical claims to North Macedonia, which continue to be a condition for lifting its veto on Skopje.

In talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday, Bulgarian President Rumen …


Coalition talks insight

During the coalition talks between the four parties, no deadline was agreed for lifting the veto over Skopje. The parties agreed to maintain a “unified Bulgarian position” towards North Macedonia but promised a constructive approach.

“We want to see a change not in words but in action. We really want to achieve results (with North Macedonia), to make it obvious that the work has begun”, Petkov said in his capacity as co-chairman of ‘Change continues’ during the coalition talks, which were streamed online.

He emphasised the intensification of business relations and the development of infrastructure between the two countries. The future government will work to establish a direct Sofia-Skopje flight, build the Pan-European Corridor 8 links and boost economic dialogue, he said. This largely corresponds to what he previously told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Kiril Petkov offers preview of new Bulgarian politics in the making

‘Change continues’, a new centrist political party in Bulgaria, is seen as the king-maker in a future coalition after the 14 November parliamentary elections. In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV,  its co-leader Kiril Petkov gave a preview of his party policies.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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