Friday

15th Nov 2019

Opinion

Time to resolve the Greece-Macedonia name game

  • Greece and Macedonia would have to agree on how to share the name (Photo: u07ch)

The countries in Balkans find themselves in different phases in the pre-accession process but normally they do progress over the years and pass to next phase in the lengthy accession process.

The recent enlargement package of strategy and progress reports draws the attention to the odd situation of Macedonia - or as it is internationally called: the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is the only country in the Western Balkans that has been blocked from starting negotiations because of a dispute with its neighbour Greece on a name issue.

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The European Commission states with some exasperation that this is the fifth time it recommends the opening of accession negotiations with this country.

It confirms that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met by Macedonia. The so-called High Level Accession Dialogue has contributed to progress in most priority areas, including the elimination of court backlogs and progress in the fight against corruption.

The country has already reached a high level of alignment relative to where it is in the accession process.

Dialogue on key priorities in the accession process is a useful tool and surely a lot of preparations can be done in advance of accession negotiations but it cannot replace them.

The commission warns that failure to act on its recommendation to start negotiations poses potentially serious challenges to Macedonia and to the EU.

It calls into question the credibility of the enlargement process, which is based on clear conditionality and the principle of own merits. The lack of a credible EU perspective also puts at risk the sustainability of Macedonia’s reform efforts.

Until now the name issue has been considered as a bilateral issue which needs to be solved by the two countries concerned with some mediation by United Nations.

However this approach does not seem to work. Although the issue concerns an EU member state and a candidate country, the commission has mainly stayed outside the dispute.

It seems surprising considering that the EU can use considerable leverage on both countries. To this can be added that EU is more heavily involved in trying to contribute solving other conflicts not directly in its own back-yard.

Greek Nato veto

In April 2008, Greece used its veto to block Macedonia’s bid to join the Nato. The Greek foreign minister at the time threatened that Greece would not endorse Macedonia’s EU membership so long as the name problem had not been resolved.

Since then little progress has been made. Macedonia is the name of a sovereign country and a region in northern Greece. From time to time proposals on how Greece and Macedonia should be able to agree on how to share the name, eventually by adding geographic or other identifiers, have been floated but without resulting in any agreement.

New governments have come and gone in Greece but all of them have adhered to “national red lines” on the name issue and taken the position that a solution must be found before further progress is made in Macedonia’s accession process.

Greece decided to ignore the advisory opinion issued in December 2011 by the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Following a complaint by Macedonia back in November 2008, the court ruled that Greece, by objecting to the admission of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to international organizations, breached its obligations under an Interim Accord from 1995.

A Roman province

Historically, the last reminiscence of Macedonia in ancient times was a Roman province with that name which existed for hundreds of years. The province included parts of present Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Greece.

Modern Greece acquired Aegean Macedonia in the first Balkan war in 1912 and it became Hellenized as the result of the exchange of populations with Turkey in 1923 after the failed Greek invasion of the Turkish main land.

To an outsider the name issue, despite its sensitiveness to both sides, seems to have grown out of all proportions.

For Greece the name Macedonia is part of its ancient history notwithstanding the fact that the Macedonian kings conquered the Greek city states and put an end to their independence. For modern Macedonia the name is part of its national identity but its attempts to usurp Alexander the Great as its national hero or founding father have been provocative.

Previous Greek governments have blamed today’s Macedonia for the losses in the Greek civil war 1946 - 49 and for having territorial claims on its northern region with the same name.

The current Greek government does not repeat such allegations. If Greece really feared ultra - nationalism in Macedonia, it had better speed up the country’s accession into EU.

Greece would have an opportunity to do it when it takes over the presidency of the EU next year but it would have to make enlargement a priority.

No country today can claim historical exclusivity to the name. Greece and Macedonia would have to agree on how to share the name.

A mutually acceptable solution can be found but it may take more time. In the meantime there is no rational reason to delay the start of accession negotiations.

Such negotiations should start under the internationally accepted name “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and the name issue could be resolved at any time during the accession process or postponed until the very end of the process.

The writer is a former official of the European Commission and is writing in a personal capacity

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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