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Bulgarian PM urges North Macedonia to show ‘guts’ and accept French deal on EU membership

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Bulgaria’s outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on Friday urged his North Macedonian counterpart Dimitar Kovačevski to be brave and to accept a French-led compromise that would open the door for Skopje to start formal membership talks with the EU.

But Petkov acknowledged that doing so could collapse Kovačevski’s government, just as Petkov himself faced — and lost — a confidence vote on Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, I know it’s very politically hard,” Petkov said in an interview with POLITICO in Brussels just as the Bulgarian parliament was expected to vote on Friday to lift a longstanding block on North Macedonia’s accession talks.

“And I know that the risk of toppling the government is — it’s a big risk,” he continued.

“As a politician, one has to decide, what is my purpose in this place? Is my purpose to be stable? Or is my purpose to lead the nation — take it a step forward — that is not comfortably going there. And I think this is the decision, Dimitar Kovačevski has to do now. If I was him, on his side, I would not even think twice. If he can go in history by opening the door for North Macedonia into the EU, I think it’s a good … achievement for a prime minister. But it takes guts.”

Petkov on Wednesday lost a no-confidence vote after political rivals capitalized on the controversial dispute with North Macedonia to topple his governing coalition. Petkov said he would sign his resignation letter on Monday, and that he expects Bulgaria to hold new parliamentary elections.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov | Andrej Cukic/EFE via EPA

Petkov is in Brussels to attend a summit of the European Council where Bulgaria has come under sharp criticism for obstructing North Macedonia’s accession talks, not just from Kovačevski and other Western Balkans leaders but also some of the EU’s most influential heads of state and governance.

“Is it fair vis-à-vis North Macedonia? I’m going to say it very honestly: no,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the press at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday night. “This is also why we have collectively put a lot of pressure on Bulgaria these last months.”

Macron praised Petkov, who the French president said “has done everything” but he said that North Macedonia was a victim of Bulgaria’s internal politics.

“It is also the result of a political crisis in Bulgaria,” Macron said.

Petkov, in the interview on Friday morning, said that the compromise put forward by France should be viewed as a “European deal” and not as an accord solely between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Historically, Bulgaria has been a major champion of granting EU membership to nations in the Western Balkans, and Petkov said that this remained the case. But he also said that there were serious issues regarding the rights of ethnic Bulgarians in North Macedonia, and that those citizens needed stronger protections in the North Macedonia constitution.

“This is not Bulgaria versus North Macedonia now,” Petkov said. “If this decision is taken, it should be the European deal on the table in North Macedonia.”

Petkov insisted that he had demonstrated the necessary political bravery to fight entrenched interests, clamp down on corruption and push for a deal with Skopje.

“If our government would have been the most stable in the world, we would not have this discussion at all,” he said. “If we had closed one eye to the old corrupt practices, and we were not so outspoken against, for example, using gas as a weapon within bloc … now you would have had a not very vocal, very stable nation in the EU. But what we would have missed is the ability for the sides to say, ‘Okay, well, we want to move faster.’ So I’m more than happy to have paid the price now with this vote of no confidence. Because that’s the only way change happens. Otherwise, you’re stuck in the — in the slum.”

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.

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