Athens warns EU over Macedonia: Balkan issue likely to bring six difficult months as Greeks take on presidency

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The Independent Online
GREECE yesterday asked its European Union partners to put pressure on Macedonia, and left open the threat of closing the border with its Balkan neighbour if it does not make concessions.

As the country's presidency of the EU began, government officials and the European Commission were trying to soothe fears that Athens is out of step with its partners. But on the Balkan issue at least, the next six months will prove very difficult because of the gap over perceptions of the problem.

Athens says the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has territorial ambitions on Greece, and that its name - the same as an adjacent Greek province - is a provocation. 'It is a kind of irredentism,' said Andreas Papandreou, the Prime Minister. Criticism from outside is not helping. 'You want us to love people who hate us,' said Theodore Pangalos, the deputy foreign minister yesterday, 'just as the IRA hates Britain. They claim half of my country.'

The decision by most EU members to open diplomatic relations had made matters worse between the two states, said Mr Papandreou, and served to boost the position of Kiro Gligorov, the Macedonian leader. 'This has encouraged Mr Gligorov to disregard Greece, although economically he depends on that country,' Mr Papandreou said after meeting Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission.

Mr Papandreou said Macedonia must change its flag, which contains the star of Vergina, a symbol Athens claims is uniquely Greek, although it predates the Greek state. It must change its constitution, which Greece says makes territoral claims. And it must guarantee the border, he said. If there was no progress, Greece might block traffic between the two states, severing Macedonia's main economic lifeline to the port of Salonika, he said. 'This will be for us to decide if we choose to do it,' he said. 'But we have no such intention today.'

Mr Papandreou said he would ask the EU states that had opened ties with Macedonia to apply pressure on Skopje. He added that he would rather that the pressure had been applied before diplomatic relations were put in place, but now that this had happened, 'Let's see if we can use it'. He also emphasised that if steps were taken by Macedonia, the two states could live side by side, despite the clash over names.

Athens has tried to calm matters by saying that the issue is not an EU affair, and accentuating the limits to its actions. 'The presidency will not do what Greece wants to do. It is not an ante-chamber of Greek external policy,' Mr Pangalos said earlier this week.

Indeed, most of the presidency programme discussed yesterday is routine. The Socialist Pasok government is putting much emphasis on dealing with unemployment, which Mr Papandreou said 'brings with it the danger of social instability'. The idea of a panel of 'wise men' to consider institutional reform seems to have been dropped.

The Prime Minister praised Mr Delors's White Paper on growth, but in terms that may not exactly help its chances. 'It will help us to get rid of excessive liberalism, and create a new growth model,' he said. Greece has put more stress on the rights of labour than other EU countries, and dissented from an EU document agreed last year that called for reductions in real wages.

Mr Delors, his last year in office now begun, went out of his way to calm the atmosphere. He emphasised that 'Greece is a full member of the European family' and attacked criticism of Athens in the European press, calling it 'deplorable and regrettable'.

External criticism has deeply upset the Greeks. Ministers and citizens alike feel the rest of Europe misunderstands them, and underrates the region's dangers. 'We are not afraid of Skopje, but in a Balkans turned upside down, it could be dangerous,' said Mr Pangalos.

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