19th Feb 2019

Greece flexes muscles in Macedonia name spat

  • Enlargement of the bloc will be halted without the Lisbon treaty, according to some EU leaders. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU leaders on Friday (20 June) adopted watered down objectives on Macedonia's progress towards the European Union following pressure from Greece over the country's name.

"The European Council [EU leaders] underlines that further steps by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in its progress towards the EU are possible by the end of this year," reads a statement signed off by member states at the end of a two-day summit in Brussels.

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This is a much more ambiguous statement than had earlier been circulated. The previous version said that EU leaders were "looking forward to the opening of the accession negotiations with FYROM by the end of this year."

The text was watered down under Greek pressure, according to diplomatic sources, as Athens wants its name row with Skopje to be solved before its northern neighbour is allowed a step closer to the EU.

Athens has been refusing to recognise its neighbour's constitutional name - the Republic of Macedonia - since the country declared independence in 1991, saying it implies territorial claims on a northern Greek province also called Macedonia.

Greece's concerns also meant that a paragraph was added to the text stressing that "maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution on the name issue, remains essential" for Macedonia's EU integration process.

Reference to "the name issue" was also absent from the previous version of the text.

Putting the changes into perspective

The Slovenian EU presidency tried to temper the importance of the changes, saying that the "further steps" referred to in the conclusions could anyway only mean opening accession talks with Macedonia – an EU candidate since 2005.

Additionally, the fact that solving the name issue "remains essential" does not mean it is a condition for the launch of the negotiations, said the presidency.

The name row has poisoned relations between Greece and Macedonia for 17 years. In April, kicking the row up a political notch, Greece blocked an invitation by NATO for Skopje to join the military alliance.

But Greece's position in the EU is no longer isolated.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy - whose country will hold the rotating EU presidency in the second half of this year - explicitly stated that France "has chosen Greece."

It is up to Skopje to "make a compromise," he reiterated on Friday.

EU enlargement halted without Lisbon treaty

More generally, and despite reaffirming their "full support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans," EU leaders also stressed that enlargement of the bloc would be threatened without the adoption of the Lisbon treaty, which Irish voters rejected last week.

"No Lisbon treaty? No enlargement," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"I get the sense that a lot of member states share my view on the matter," he added on Friday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the president, saying that further EU expansion based on the current Nice treaty "seems unconceivable to me too."

"The Nice treaty limits European Union membership to 27 countries," she added.

Both leaders implied that EU candidate Croatia – the next in line to join the bloc - would be affected by the treaty rejection.

For his part, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany also stressed that the EU would have "serious difficulties" in continuing with the enlargement process.

It would not be "because we don't have the political willingness, but because we don't have the sufficient and effective legal framework to do that," he said.

EU summit unlikely to see progress on Balkans enlargement

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday will spend little time discussing enlargement of the bloc, and are not expected to do more than reaffirm western Balkan countries' "European perspective" – despite greater expectations from some of the EU hopefuls, in particular Macedonia.

Pro-EU government takes power in Macedonia

Macedonia's parliament on Saturday approved the country's new government led by prime minister Nikola Gruevski and pledged to do its utmost to speed up Macedonia's EU integration. Meanwhile, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has "regretted" persistent problems in the relations between Skopje and Athens.

Tensions mount over Kosovo-Serbia deal

Serbia will never recognise Kosovo, Serbia's foreign minister has said, as the Western Balkans heads into a new period of turbulence.


EU should brace for a more authoritarian Erdogan

The new blend of religious nationalism will be more anti-West and anti-EU, as Brussels has anything but leverage on Turkey. The first signs of this strong rhetoric are already visible.

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