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 Da?i?, the Serbian prime minister, said: “You want us to help in that dispute? Don’t involve us in that, please,” Da?i? 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 Miloševi?’s regime.
As soon as the translation went back, Da?i? 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."
Macedonia declared independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
In 1995, Skopje and Athens reached a deal under UN auspices known as the "Interim Accord".
Under the agreement, the Republic removed the Vergina Sun from its flag and allegedly irredentist clauses from its constitution, and both countries committed to continuing negotiations on the naming issue under UN auspices. For its part, Greece agreed that it would not object to any application by the Republic so long as it used only the appellation set out in "paragraph 2 of the United Nations Security Council resolution 817" This opened the door for the Republic to join a variety of international organisations and initiatives, including the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Partnership for Peace.
The accord was not a conventional perpetual treaty, as it can be superseded or revoked, but its provisions are legally binding in terms of international law. Most unusually, it did not use the names of either party. Greece, "the Party of the First Part", recognised the Republic of Macedonia under the term "the Party of the Second Part". The accord did not specifically identify either party by name (thus avoiding the awkwardness of Greece having to use the term "Macedonia" in reference to its northern neighbour). Instead, it identified the two parties elliptically by describing the Party of the First Part as having Athens as its capital and the Party of the Second Part having its capital at Skopje. Subsequent declarations have continued this practice of referring to the parties without naming them.
The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.
Integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war. The August 2001 Ohrid
Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the ethnic-Albanian communities (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'EU-Macedonia relations').
Greece considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its mediaeval history and the 19th- and early-20th century struggle against Ottoman rule.
Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje. Both nations claim Alexander as a native son.
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