December 16, 2011
Sometimes stupid conflicts between people, families or countries persist over many years because of intransigence of the parties or lack of proper outside mediators. The conflict between Greece and Macedonia is one of these. It lasts ever since the breakup of Yugoslavia two decades ago and the independence of the Yugoslav republics , all of which aspire for EU membership.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in 1991 under the name of Republic of Macedonia, which no country objected to except Greece, the northern province of which also bears the name of the ancient empire of Alexander the Great.
Greece reproached the newly independent Republic with territorial aspirations, which had, indeed, existed during a short period in the aftermath of the second world war.
The Macedonian leaders were not helpful in calming Greek apprehensions. They chose the “Vergina Sun”, the historic symbol of Greek Macedonia, as their national flag and installed a huge monument of Alexander the Great in their capital.
Since 1995 Macedonia has changed its flag and also agreed to use the name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) in its international relations. In return, Greece promised not to block Macedonia’s applications to international organisations.
Thus Macedonia (FYROM) was admitted to the UN, the Council of Europe, WTO, CEFTA, EBRD, WHO, IMF etc. But for practical reasons more than 100 UN countries, including USA, Russia and UK refer to the country as “Republic of Macedonia”. Greece has essentially lost its battle on the name of its northern neighbour a long time ago.
In 2008 it has reopened the issue by blocking Macedonia`s NATO membership under the official designation of FYROM. NATO membership being Macedonia`s top foreign policy priority, the government took the matter to the ICJ in the Hague, which, in early December 2011, ruled 15 against 1 in favour of Macedonia. On the basis of this ruling NATO should resume Macedonia`s application, ignoring possible Greek objections.
In parallel, the EU should pursue Macedonia` membership bid, which is pending since 2005. The EP has invited the European Commission to open negotiations. There is no urgency for membership. Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are in the pipeline. But in 2014 negotiations should finally start in the hope that by that time the Greek political class will have realised that Macdonia`s EU membership, far from representing a menace, will be beneficial for Greece as one of Macedonia`s main economic partners.
In the course the next two years the EU should therefore discreetly remind the Greek political elite that it expects it to make the necessary gestures for normalising relations with all Balkan countries.Author : Eberhard Rhein