ATHENS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Greece said on Tuesday it was “far away” from resolving a decades-long dispute over Macedonia’s name despite progress in talks between the two neighbors on a matter that could make or break Skopje’s bid to join the European Union.
EU leaders will meet their six Balkan counterparts for a summit on Thursday, part of the bloc’s renewed drive to bring the region closer and counter growing influence there from other powers.
EU leaders are then expected to decide in June whether to open membership negotiations with Macedonia (FYROM), as well as Albania, but Skopje would not be able to join over a Greek veto unless it solves the name dispute.
“In our continuing talks with our neighbors, there has been significant progress but we are still far away from concluding negotiations and reaching an agreement,” Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told a press briefing.
The row erupted in 1991 when Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia as it disintegrated. Greece refuses to recognize it under the name Macedonia, saying this implies a territorial claim on a northern Greek region of the same name, and has blocked its efforts to join NATO, as well as the EU.
The prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia are expected to meet in neighboring Bulgaria on Thursday on the sidelines of the EU-Western Balkans summit in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.
Speaking ahead of the Sofia talks and the June EU summit, a senior official in Brussels said talks between the two southern neighbors made “good progress” though were not yet conclusive.
“What is important for us is that there is a solution agreed between the FYROM and Greece by the time of the June meeting. That might be key for the EU decision on opening membership negotiations, that’s what we really need,” the official said.
Tzanakopoulos said the Thursday meeting would be “very useful and important” but the two countries might need a new round of talks to resolve the dispute.
Athens and Skopje decided last year to renew their efforts to try to reach a settlement well before the summer.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hopes a resolution would increase his political leverage in Europe while boosting his popularity at home, where many Greeks feel the country’s debt crisis and three huge bailouts have compromised its sovereignty.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who came to power a year ago, hopes to boost his fragile coalition with a deal that would also open up the path to EU and NATO membership for the tiny landlocked Balkan country.
Greece has asked Macedonia to change its name and to revise its constitution to exclude what it says are “irredentist” references denoting territorial ambitions.
Tzanakopoulos said any deal would be comprehensive and would outline specific targets and a timeframe.
“It won’t be a solution which will be concluded by pressing a button,” he said, reiterating that Greece wanted a compound name which would be used in all international forums.
Writing by Angeliki Koutantou, Editing by William Maclean