EU Dangles Balkan Expansion in Boost to Name Deal Facing Hurdles

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union said it may start membership talks with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia as soon as next year, endorsing a deal over the former Yugoslav nation’s new name that its president attempted to block.

Giving a date for the start of negotiations may boost Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s push to complete a deal with Greece to rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia, which would end a decades-long dispute between the neighbors. The agreement hit a hurdle on Tuesday, with a formal veto from President Gjorge Ivanov, which Zaev will look to overturn through a vote in parliament before seeking endorsement for the accord in a referendum.

“The EU is determined to strengthen and intensify its engagement at all levels to support the region’s political, economic and social transformation,” according to a statement following a meeting of European affairs ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday. While the EU said that talks may start in June 2019, it set terms for both countries.

Setting conditions for the accession negotiations date -- a highly unusual caveat -- was the price for bending the resistance of the Netherlands and France who said the two countries aren’t ready to join, according to two officials familiar with the discussion.

‘Positive Climate’

The biggest supporter of giving an access date to the Republic of Macedonia was Greece, according to the officials who asked not to be named to discuss confidential conversations, as foreign minister Nikos Kotzias strongly advocated giving a boost to Zaev in light of the challenges he faces after the compromise. One of the officials said supporters of enlargement were relieved with the deal, even with the caveats attached, as without a date, Zaev wouldn’t have much to show for.

Starting negotiations would help “create a positive climate to complete the tasks envisaged” in the name deal with Greece and push ahead with reforms, Zaev said in a letter sent to his EU counterparts, urging them to support his country’s bid to join the union.

The opposition-backed president argued that the agreement violates the constitution and “subordinates” the country to another state. Ivanov’s veto may be overturned in parliament as early as next week.

Public Support

Zaev needs wide public support to pass a constitutional amendment in exchange for Greece to stop blocking the country’s aspirations of joining the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Greece believes the name ‘Macedonia’ is a territorial claim over its northern province with the same label. The premier expects to receive invitations to start entry talks with both within weeks.

“The president’s decision was anticipated, but it won’t affect the stages of the agreement’s approval, because the citizens will have the final decision,” government spokesman Mile Boshniakovski said by phone from Skopje. “The cabinet in Athens already sent letters to the EU and NATO to support us for this week’s EU meeting and the NATO summit on July 12.”

EU Dangles Balkan Expansion in Boost to Name Deal Facing Hurdles

The veto is unlikely to present a serious hurdle in the process, as long as the referendum is successful, according to Besa Arifi, an associate professor in law at the South East European University in Tetovo, Republic of Macedonia.

“Even if Ivanov imposes a second veto, it doesn’t matter,” Arifi said by phone. “The government found a way to bypass him in this process.”

Aside for resolving the name dispute, the EU urged the Republic of Macedonia to make progress on judicial reforms and the prosecution of corruption and organized crime, on a revamp of intelligence and security services and of public administration. For Albania, it recommended to intensify efforts to overhaul public administration and the judiciary, to make progress on the fight against corruption and organized crime and to step up the protection of human rights.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.