Enlargement commissioner: Macedonia has ‘window of opportunity’

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The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has a "window of opportunity" to solve its long-standing name dispute with Greece, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle told journalists in Brussels today (17 February). However, he stressed that external help could not act as a substitute for political will in Athens and Skopje.

"It takes two to tango," said Füle, the EU's new commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, who took the initiative to brief Brussels journalists on the eve of his visit to the Balkans.

The Czech said the EU expects to resolve the row between the two countries, which has been blocking the opening of EU accession negotiations with Skopje, during the Spanish EU Presidency.

Macedonia, which in EU circles has to be called FYROM at the insistence of Greece (see 'Background'), received the status of candidate country in December 2005. Primarily as a result of the name dispute, five years have since been lost, a timeframe in which most new EU members have been able to wrap up their accession talks.

Füle is due in Macedonia on Friday, as part of his first trip in his new capacity. The first country to be visited by him is Croatia, on Thursday. He is expected to hold a series of talks with the Macedonian political elite, including a tête-à-tête meeting with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

Füle refrained from going into detail on the name dispute, but said he hoped that long-delayed accession talks could finally start as 2009 had been a "good year for reform" in the former Yugoslav republic.

The enlargement commissioner also paid tribute to the Spanish EU Presidency's efforts to resolve the issue. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, recently told the European Parliament that he believes a solution to the 'name dispute' between Skopje and Athens will be reached soon (EURACTIV 04/02/10).

In the meantime, the daily Vecer in Skopje reported that the former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski has admitted that the new name 'Northern Republic of Macedonia' could be used in the passports of his country's citizens.

Such a step, according to the politician now in opposition, would come closer to satisfying Greece's demand that the 'geographical' name of the country be used universally, requiring changes to national legislation and amendments to the country's constitution.

However this view does not appear to be the official line in Skopje.

The UN mediator in the name dispute, US diplomat Mathhew Nimetz, is expected to hold talks in Skopje on 23 February and Athens on 26 February, the press in Skopje reports.

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In April 2008, Athens vetoed Macedonia's invitation to join NATO, arguing that the name 'Macedonia' could lead Skopje to make territorial claims over Greece's own northern province of the same name (EURACTIV 04/04/08).

Similarly, Macedonia still finds itself unable to start accession talks with the EU, despite the fact that it received the status of candidate country as early as December 2005.

Upon Greek insistence, in official EU papers, Macedonia does not even appear under this name: it is referred to as 'the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)'.

Former Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has repeatedly warned that the unsolved 'name dispute' with Greece could negatively affect Macedonia's EU agenda. Meanwhile, UN-sponsored talks to solve the dispute are ongoing.

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