EU Dangles Balkan Expansion Talks to Boost Crucial Name Deal

(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 state the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a decades-long dispute between the neighbors. The agreement hit a hurdle on Tuesday, when President Gjorge Ivanov rejected it in a formal veto. Zaev vowed to overrule it in parliament as early as next week and then seek an endorsement 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 issued after the meeting of European affairs ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday. While the EU said that talks may start in June 2019, it spelled out 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 which 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 discussing confidential conversations. Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias strongly advocated providing a date to give a boost to Zaev in light of the challenges he faces to complete the deal.

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.

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 Talks to Boost Crucial Name Deal

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.

“We missed the time when the road ahead was paved, now we’ll climb a steep” road, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said on Facebook. “We’ll motivate even those who are still glum and skeptical.”

Aside from the name dispute, the EU urged the ex-Yugoslav nation to proceed with judicial reforms and prosecution of corruption and organized crime. For Albania, it recommended intensifying efforts to overhaul public administration and the judiciary, fight corruption and organized crime.

“The initial skirmish is won, and now the real battle begins,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on Twitter.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.