Hopes Rise that Balkans Name Game Will End Amicably

Hopes Rise that Balkans Name Game Will End Amicably

European leaders have expressed their delight at the outline agreement struck between Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras in a long-running dispute over the Balkan country’s name.

There are still obstacles to be cleared before Macedonia can change its name to North Macedonia, ending a wrangle that has lasted for decades and opening the way for it to join the EU.

These include strong opposition to the name change in both Macedonia and Greece, with Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov already making clear he would not sanction the deal and the main Greek opposition party also criticising the proposal.

Despite expressing their pleasure at the deal, EU leaders still cannot agree on whether or not to approve talks on Macedonia and Albania joining the EU at the end of the month.

Pro-enlargement supporters say the EU must keep Balkan countries within its sphere of influence to see off rival powers, such as Russia.

Others, including France and the Netherlands, want the EU to concentrate on reforms after Brexit before taking on new members. They also fear that letting in countries from the Balkans, will play into the hands of populist parties in next year’s European Parliament elections.

France and the Netherlands reportedly want to defer a decision about talks until late 2019, but pro-enlargement officials insist that opening membership talks with any country gives the EU greater scope to demand improvements to democracy and rule of law, which would boost pro-EU leaders there.

In any event, Macedonia and Albania would have to undertake more reforms before they could commence negotiations.

The name change deal aims to end a dispute that has lasted 27 years, when Macedonia seceded from communist Yugoslavia. Greece claimed that that the country’s name suggested it had a claim on a region of northern Greece with the same name and said it would veto any Skopje bid to join the EU and NATO until an agreement was reached.

The Macedonian government will put the deal to a referendum and will need a two-thirds Parliamentary majority to pass the constitutional changes. The deal would see the country renamed as North Macedonia and this name would be used both internally and externally.

In Greece, Tsipras’ coalition partners have rejected the plan and the main opposition New Democracy has been critical.

Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who was involved in the talks with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini afterwards urged EU leaders to approve membership talks with Skopje.

But diplomats say Greece wants to see Macedonia implement the deal before it gives approval for the start of membership talks.

(Banner image: European Parliament )

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