Evangelos Venizelos, the foreign minister of Greece, which holds the Council of the EU's rotating presidency, said on Tuesday (21 January) that the main obstacle to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s EU membership was the country’s "lack of respect for European values".
“The obstacle for the beginning of accession negotiations especially between the EU and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is not the so-called name issue," said Venizelos, who was speaking at the EU-Serbia conference in Brussels on Tuesday (21 January).
"The problem is the acceptance of European values and the fulfillment of the political criteria of Copenhagen,” Venizelos said, adding he was speaking in his “capacity as the president of the Council of the EU,” representing the 28 EU member states.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been an official EU candidate since 2005 and received a positive recommendation by the European Commission to start accession talks but has failed to actually initial them due to a lack of consensus among the EU member states.
The reasons appear to be deeper, however. The last Council conclusions Commission assessment both expressed serious concerns over the country’s democratic progress. The reports cited blurred distinctions between the party and state, assault on media freedom and lack of independency from the judiciary, leading some EU diplomats to say the country had taken steps “backwards”.
Although the name dispute between Athens and Skopje had undermined relations since 1995, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was nonetheless accepted as a fully-fledged member of the United Nations. And unlike for the start of EU talks, Athens did not block the country’s official EU candidate status in 2005.
Opinion is divided over why Greece decided to block the candidate’s EU path as of 2008, but many see the actions of Macedonia's right-wing government coalition of VMRO-DPMNE, which came to power in 2006, as “sheer provocation” towards Greece.
The building of a statue of Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje, the renaming of roads after the controversial warrior or the use of a map of “Great Macedonia” in presence of the Macedonian premier, Nikola Gruevski, were all considered by Athens as "irredentist claims" over its territory and history.
Serbia as facilitator?
Asked by EurActiv whether Belgrade could act as a facilitator in relations between Macedonia and Greece's dispute now that Serbia was a negotiating country, Ivica Dačić, the Serbian prime minister, said: “You want us to help in that dispute? Don’t involve us in that, please,” Dačić said jokingly in his native Serb.
“But of course we want an acceptable solution. We have enough of our own problems but I’m pleased you’re asking us to get involved, it shows a change. Earlier nobody would have asked us to help anything, they would just tell us to stay away,” he continued, amusing the Serb-speaking audience and hinting at Serbia’s former status of “pariah state” under Milošević’s regime.
As soon as the translation went back, Dačić said however more seriously that if their “friends and brothers”, pointing at the Greek minister, “ask us to get involved, of course we can offer our good will.”
Richard Howitt MEP (Socialists & Democrats), rapporteur in the European Parliament on Macedonia said: "The Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry has assured me that they will conduct their presidency in relation to Skopje objectively on behalf of the European Union as a whole.
"I am asking them to go further by seeing it as an opportunity for both sides to make genuine and sincere efforts to resolve the name issue, and to work towards a solution for the EU talks to begin."
The EU Parliament voted a resolution on Tuesday (21 January) on Macedonia that calls on "the current Greek presidency of the European Union should be turned to an advantage not an obstacle, in the light of the long-running name dispute between Athens and Skopje."
- 12 February: Visit of the EU Parliament rapporteur, Richard Howitt, to Macedonia