Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The problem between Greece and Macedonia is the lack of trust

Adelina Marini, August 16, 2010

Is it possible the Gordian knot between Greece and Macedonia to be untied? This question periodically reappears in public, becomes essential in European Union's agenda when the dispute between the two countries heats up, but then again recedes in anticipation a magic power to appear, which could leave all sides satisfied.

The conflict

The problem between the two Balkan states emerged with the separation of Republic of Macedonia from Yugoslavia and the pretenses of the country to take the name Macedonia. Something with which neighbouring Greece disagrees, because it has an entire region, called Macedonia. The conflict is being additionally complicated by the fact that Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union and Macedonia has aspirations to join both organisations. Athens, however, has a strategic advantage to impose veto or to be in the position of being able to put conditions. This detail casts a dark shadow over EU's attempts to have a single foreign policy, at least in terms of what is going on in its backyard.

According to Gerald Knaus, one of the founders of the European Stability Initiative, former Open Society fellow, there is a solution. He proposes such a solution that would end a situation of mockery for the European ambitions for an effective foreign policy in the Balkans.

Gerald Knaus thinks that the core problem is the lack of trust between the two countries. Greece realises that the only leverage for influencing Macedonia for a change of its constitutional name is to use its position of a member of the EU to block Skopje's path to membership. Even Greece's pressure to block Macedonia's accession to NATO cannot do the job - only the EU. In the meantime, the analyst writes, most politicians in Athens realise that they have a vital interest in Macedonia's stability. Besides, Athens fully supports EU's enlargement to the Balkans and, something very important - it does not want to be used by those countries in the Union which are interested in blocking the Balkan enlargement for good.

The other side of the problem is the tendency, in recent years, Skopje to be more intransigent, because it is clear that any constitutional change would require broad support in the country. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevsky enjoys a strong political position, but possible constitutional amendments require two thirds majority in Parliament, as well as the support of the two ethnic communities in the country. Gerald Knaus also considers it almost certain that there would be a referendum on the matter.

The problem has a third side too - officials in Skopje and in the EU believe that the current Greek government of George Papandreou wants a solution but in general the trust in the Greek political establishment is vague. And, again in support of the thesis for a lack of trust between the two countries - the people and leaders in Skopje might be prepared to a compromise on the name of Macedonia but under one condition: such a change to guarantee the country membership to the EU. No Greek government, however, could guarantee that if Skopje would make a compromise today, this would open the door of the EU for Macedonia, because a new government could eventually be against it.

The proposal

Gerald Knaus proposes an amendment in Macedonia's Constitution, changing the country's name, because this would give Athens an option to support the beginning of accession talks with the EU later this year. In the meantime, such a change should enter into force on the day of Macedonia's accession to the EU. Mr Knaus even proposes a possible text for such an amendment: "All references to the Republic of Macedonia in this constitution will be replaced by a reference to XX (a compromise name such as Republic of Macedonia – Vardar) on the day this country joins the European Union."

If, for some reasons, Skopje would not join the Union then the country would not have to change its name, the analyst writes. But such a constitutional text would guarantee that Macedonia, after it becomes a EU member, the change of name would happen automatically and immediately, which could also be written in its accession treaty. According to Knaus, such a solution would allow both countries and their leaders claim victory yet today. Besides, the government in Skopje would turn Greece into a real ally (based upon mutual interest), that could facilitate a timely EU membership. On its behalf, Athens would guarantee itself dividends for the simple fact that no Greek government has so far succeeded in tackling the problem.

The solution Jerald Knaus proposes sounds easy but is it feasible since a significant part of the problem is what the new name should be? Furthermore, such a solution does not suggest a solution in principle - what name should Macedonia have even if not a EU member state? Because even now there are a lot of countries in the region (Bulgaria excluded) which have recognised Macedonia as a state but not with its constitutional name, and refer to it as FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Apparently, good neighbourly relations cannot be at stake only in terms of EU membership. Such a solution is needed that could recover trust between Greece and Macedonia in the long run, no matter any membership.

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