EPP hails positive momentum on Macedonia name dispute

EPP official: "It looks like the tough line adopted by Gruevski is breaking." [Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών/Flickr]

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is satisfied with the new rapprochement between Skopje and Athens, as the two sides aim to unlock Macedonia’s NATO bid and open the door to EU accession talks. But some within the party counselled caution.

In an effort to de-escalate ethnic tensions in the Balkan country, the new Social Democratic Union Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has made EU and NATO accession a priority.

Recently, press reports quoted him as saying that the new government in Skopje would agree to join NATO under the temporary FYROM name and for that reason, he has tried to remove obstacles raised by Greece and Bulgaria to Macedonia’s EU bid.

Bulgaria and Macedonia start removing hurdles to relations

During new Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s visit to Sofia on Tuesday (20 June), it was announced that Bulgaria and Macedonia will soon sign a bilateral treaty, removing some obstacles to Skopje’s bid to join NATO and the EU.

Zaev’s premiership marks the end of a long period during which Macedonian politics was dominated by Nikola Gruevski’s hardline VMRO-DPMNE party, an affiliate of the EPP.

Athens has welcomed the new momentum but warned that the country’s Euro-Atlantic future depends on a clear and permanent solution to the name dispute.

On 14 June, Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said that Athens was willing to help Macedonia in every way to attain its goals, on the condition that the name issue is resolved.

“That is the prerequisite and I believe we must, and can, work towards a good compromise benefiting both sides,” he said, stressing that both countries should continue the process of improving relations.

In light of the recent developments, EURACTIV.com spoke to several EPP delegations about the issue ahead of the EU summit on Thursday (22 June).

Positions varied, but all agreed that the current build-up of momentum was positive. However, the prevailing attitude was that they should “wait and see” how the situation develops.

Gruevski’s hard line breaks down

Parts of the EPP family do not understand the Greek opposition in the name debate and find it unjustifiable that Athens has blocked Skopje from joining both the NATO and the EU for so many years.

These currents within the EPP welcome the “positive Euro-Atlantic dynamic” for Macedonia, cautioning that it is still early to be over-optimistic.

“Macedonia’s stabilisation will play a positive role in the wider region,” one official said.

New Macedonia PM signals willingness to tackle row with Greece

Macedonia’s new Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, has signalled a possible shift in the country’s sour relations with neighbouring Greece, which have blocked Skopje’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO.

An source present at Thursday’s pre-summit meeting of the EPP admitted that there was a “clear indication of a change of direction” that was worth exploring.

“It looks like the tough line adopted by Gruevski is falling apart”, he added. But he warned that decisive change will only come if Zaev manages to follow a different policy from Gruevski in the longer term.

It is reported that Gruevski’s camp is trying to use the new prime minister’s “ouvertures” towards Greece and Bulgaria as ammunition with which to destabilise or even topple his government.

Impressing the neighbours

Another source warned against “excessive enthusiasm”, recalling that Greece’s longstanding position was that the name dispute should be solved first, before any other business could be addressed.

The centre-right official also said that the socialist government needed to understand that the national interest was more important than party politics.

“They show flexibility to impress their neighbours but in the long run they have to have public opinion on their side as well,” he said.

In 2012, Bulgaria joined Greece in vetoing the opening of EU accession talks with Macedonia, despite a positive recommendation by the European Commission.

Greece has longstanding objections to Macedonia’s name, which both countries claim.

The country’s internationally recognised name is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) but Skopje would prefer to simply be called Macedonia, which is also the name of a northern Greek province.

Bulgaria also sees irredentist tendencies in Macedonia. During many public events Macedonian officials have stood in front of maps showing “Greater Macedonia”, including Bulgarian and Greek territories. Bulgaria also rejects the appropriation of Bulgarian history by Skopje.

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