By Sarah Marsh and Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA/SKOPJE (Reuters) -German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday called on Bulgaria to lift its veto on EU accession talks for North Macedonia, saying the bloc should avoid dashing the membership hopes of countries in Western Balkans.
Scholz, visiting Sofia as part of a two-day tour of the region ahead of an EU-Western Balkans leaders' summit on June 23, said he sensed a "new willingness" by the EU to expand after Russia's invasion to Ukraine.
The war has lent new urgency to the process of trying to tie the Western Balkans closer to the 27-member bloc in a bid to counter Russian and Chinese influence. The German chancellor has made the matter a foreign policy priority, and fashioned himself as a mediator during his trip.
"I see chances for progress," Scholz said in a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. "We will stay in close exchange in coming days."
Petkov reiterated Bulgaria's stance that North Macedonia must meet three conditions related to historical and cultural disputes between the two countries, urging Brussels to guarantee they were met.
The issue is sensitive for Bulgaria's domestic politics. This week, one of Petkov's four coalition partners quit, accusing him of being ready to lift Bulgaria's veto in disregard of national interests, among other allegations.
Earlier on Saturday, Scholz visited North Macedonia, which has already carried out many reforms in its bid to become an EU member, such as changing its name to meet Greek objections.
Speaking in Skopje alongside North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, Scholz said Russia's invasion of Ukraine made it important for Europe to stand together.
On Friday, he visited Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008. He urged the leaders to reach an agreement on normalising relations.
Shortly before returning to Germany, Scholz said the will among many EU members to get the Western Balkans into the EU was stronger than it had been "for many years".
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Skopje and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; additional Reporting by Tom Sims in Frankfurt; Editing by Jason Neely and Clelia Oziel)