Macedonia expects to get date to start EU membership talks soon

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia expects to secure a date soon to start membership talks with the European Union and will step up its efforts to implement the reforms needed to join, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Macedonia won its candidacy status in 2005, but the accession talks remain blocked by Greece due to a decades-long dispute about the name of the former Yugoslav republic.

Since he took over last year, Zaev has stepped up efforts to resolve the dispute with Greece, which says the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim over its northern region which has the same name.

Greece is also blocking Macedonia’s membership of NATO.

“We have a concrete goal ahead of us. We have never been closer to receiving a date to open membership talks with the EU,” Zaev said after meeting Donald Tusk, head of the European Council which groups the bloc’s 28 national governments.

“We are working to successfully solve the name issue. Solving this issue will open the doors to begin membership talks with the EU and to enter NATO.”

He said his administration would “double” its efforts to ensure that reforms are “more visible, concrete and efficient”.

Western governments see NATO and European Union membership for the Western Balkan countries as the best way to stabilize a region still recovering from armed conflicts in the 1990s.

In its latest report on progress of the six Western Balkan countries, the European Commission gave a recommendation for Albania and Macedonia to start accession talks. All member states have to give the green light for negotiations to begin.

But until the name issue is resolved, Greece is unlikely to give a green light to Macedonia’s accession talks.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov called on EU leaders to open membership talks while negotiations with Greece continue.

“If it (resolving the name dispute with Greece) is placed as a condition (for talks to start) we are being deprived of our basic right to become European,” Ivanov told journalists.

Ivanov took part in a meeting on Friday of regional heads of states, including the presidents of Slovenia and Croatia, two fellow ex-Yugoslav republics that have already joined the EU.

Tusk, who visited Macedonia as part of his Balkans tour, attended the meeting as well.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor urged Balkan leaders to work hard to build good relations with their neighbors, a pre-condition for EU membership.

Six countries in the western Balkans -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia -- are progressing toward membership, led by Serbia and Montenegro, which could join the bloc as soon as 2025.

“Brussels cannot do everything. Part of the job has to be done by Western Balkan leaders,” Pahor said.

Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Gareth Jones and Catherine Evans