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30th Jul 2021

Commissioner calls for 'deeds' in Macedonia name dispute

A solution to Macedonia's name dispute with Greece should be found in the coming four months, so as to start EU accession negotiations under the Spanish EU presidency, enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said during his visit to Skopje on Friday (19 February).

"There is a unique opportunity to find a solution and it should be seized. I am fully committed to supporting the talks, which along with the required political will, should lead to a solution," Mr Fuele told local media after meeting Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

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  • Alexander the Great, the ancient king, is at the centre of the Macedonian name dispute (Photo: Wikipedia)

He expressed satisfaction at the progress made by the country last year, leading to the new EU visa-free travel regime for Macedonian citizens which was put in place in December. He also stressed that reforms are unfinished and that the leadership in Skopje and Athens should now move to "deeds" to solve the name dispute which has blocked Macedonia's EU accession bid.

A decision on opening membership talks with Skopje, as recommended by the EU commission, was delayed last December following pressure by Greece. Athens has problems with the name of its neighbouring country, since Macedonia also corresponds to a historical Greek region.

EU leaders could decide to open accession talks at the June summit, if Greece drops its opposition or if a solution to the name dispute is found.

So far, the mediation work has been carried by the United Nations, but the EU is pondering whether to step in as well, since the process has been stalled for the past 13 years.

No decision on the commission's involvement has been taken yet, but Mr Fuele has publicly indicated that the issue is a matter of regional stability and casts a shadow on the credibility of the enlargement process, which he called the "EU's most successful foreign policy."

It is still unknown how Greece's current financial and economic troubles will have an impact on the Macedonian name dispute. Athens is currently under tremendous pressure from big eurozone countries such as Germany and France to cut back spending and provide accurate data on its deficit, while facing unprecedented scrutiny by the European Commission.

Some diplomats suggest that this offers a window of opportunity which should be seized, while others say that because of the painful economic measures, Athens will be even less inclined to compromise on the name issue, a matter of national pride.

But neither are some gestures from the government in Skopje of any help, such as naming the airport and a major highway after Alexander the Great, a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon - moves which prompted fierce criticism in Greece.

Brussels officials familiar with the matter say that if a solution is found, Macedonia's membership could be coupled with Iceland's, which has also applied to join the club. Their accession would happen after Croatia's, which is the closest to EU membership at this stage.

"Once we open negotiations, people are in for a big surprise. Everybody thinks Iceland will have no problems in joining, but actually it is Macedonia who will be flying through the negotiating chapters. Apart from some classical problems with the judiciary and fight against corruption, Macedonia has harmonised its legislation and implemented a lot of EU requirements," one EU source told this website.

As for Iceland, although it is part of the EU's internal market, negotiations are likely to run into trouble over fisheries and other topics dear to the Nordic islanders. The current financial dispute with Great Britain and the Netherlands is also not looking good for the EU prospects of Reykjavik. And contrary to the situation with the Balkan country, some parts of the Icelandic political establishment are against EU membership.

For now, both Macedonian and Greek officials, despite the declared willingness to find a solution, have not yet inched closer to a result. The UN mediator on the issue, Matthew Nimetz, is due in Skopje next week.

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