Manfred Weber, the Spitzenkandidat of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), ended months of silence on the ongoing efforts to resolve the Greece-Macedonia name row with a couple of pithy comments on Tuesday (9 January) that appear to support the deal.
“Everybody knows that [the name dispute] has to be solved in order to give Macedonia a positive economic and European future,” Weber, who will lead the EPP’s European election campaign, told EURACTIV.com.
Weber had not taken a position on the issue for months, despite growing pressure from other political groups in the EU Parliament to do so.
Last June, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a breakthrough deal on a 25-year long name dispute and agreed on the name ‘North Macedonia’.
The deal will open the door for FYROM’s NATO membership, currently blocked by Athens due to the name dispute, to be concluded.
Lawmakers in Skopje began the final debate yesterday on the constitutional reforms needed to change the name of the country. For its part, Athens has promised to lift its veto on Skopje’s bid to join NATO and the EU.
The final name change deal is due to be voted in the Greek parliament in March.
New Democracy, the sister party of the EPP in Greece, and the main opposition party to the governing leftist Syriza party, has vowed to block the deal in parliament.
Asked to comment on New Democracy’s stance on the issue, Weber replied diplomatically that it was the Greek government’s responsibility to negotiate and finalise the deal, implying that no support from the opposition was needed for that.
“First of all, they have a government to negotiate the deal… and is responsible… But again, the opposition is formally not needed for accepting now the compromise. So, it’s the role of opposition to show an alternative, that is the role of an opposition, and Kyriakos is not opposing to the principle idea to find a compromise,” Weber said.
The EU and the United States have expressed their support for the name-change deal, which is opposed by Russia. Moscow suspects that Washington is pushing the name-change agreement to expand NATO’s influence in the region.
New Democracy will accept a ‘ratified’ deal
In an interview with EURACTIV, Elmar Brok, an influential German Christian-Democrat MEP, said New Democracy had told the EPP that it would accept a “ratified” name change deal.
He added that the issue has been discussed in the EPP. “Therefore, it is also good in these talks, New Democracy declares that it will accept the ratified treaty when it becomes part of a government.”
“New Democracy, when it comes to power, will then accept and implement a ratified treaty. Because New Democracy has not said that if it is ratified it will not accept it,” Brok added.
It is unclear however if the formula “accepting a ratified deal” includes not making obstacles to the ratification.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Athens on 10-11 January, with the name change deal high on the agenda, according to Brok.
“The government has to negotiate the deal, so the government must seek a majority. Apart from the name deal, I believe that Merkel supports New Democracy on all other essential issues such as how to run economic and monetary policy and all the rest,” Brok added.
No room for a ‘new Gruevski’
In an interview with the Open TV channel, Tsipras said all parties and lawmakers would take their “historical responsibility toward a historic deal”.
“The deal leaves no room for a new nationalist in the future, a new Gruevski,” Tsipras said, referring to Macedonia’s former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who took a hardline stance on the name dispute when he was in power.
Meanwhile, Syriza’s conservative junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks party, have vowed to leave the government if the deal comes for approval in the Greek parliament. Syriza believes that its coalition partner will not back a motion of no confidence, which it expects to be tabled by New Democracy.
“I am quite sure that the country will not move into such processes […] my partner will not choose to facilitate my political opponents’ plans. But democracy has no deadlocks and I believe I will win a confidence motion,” Tsipras added.
Syriza and Independent Greeks will hold a crucial meeting on the issue on 11 January.