EU acts against Athens over Skopje embargo

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THE EUROPEAN Commission finally crossed the line into open confrontation with Athens yesterday, an unprecedented dispute with a member state and the country that holds the EU presidency.

The conflict over Greek sanctions against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is of enormous significance for both Greece and the European Union. However, there are big obstacles to coercing a sovereign state, and Athens appears unwilling to bend to outside pressure.

The country is also running into conflict with its neighbour, Albania, and there is a risk that its regional disputes will spill over into violence.

Greece was taken yesterday to the European Court of Justice by the Commission over its embargo, which the Commission believes breaks EU law. Greece has made its defence a treaty article that permits trade measures in case of a threat to national security.

The Commission says this will not wash. The Commission had given Greece a week's notice of its intentions. But there is no sign that Athens will relent. Greece said the Commission's action was 'extremely unfortunate, inappropriate and contradictory'.

The Commission has taken Greece to court under Article 225 of the EU's treaty, which has never been used before. No one knows for certain how it will be applied. The Commission wants a preliminary judgement within one or two months, because a final judgment would take two years. But there is uncertainty over whether this can be achieved, and what it will mean.

If the court says that Greece has broken EU law, and asks it to end the embargo, it would be unlikely to end the affair. A further case would probably be required before a penalty could be applied. The Commission is uncertain it wants to do this.

Article 171, since the Maastricht treaty was ratified, carries the possibility of a fine under European law, or a series of penalty payments. Greece is a substantial recipient of EU cash and any payments would effectively come out of what the state gets from Brussels. A decision could take two years. The point of navigating this legal maze is supposed to be to stop the embargo on Macedonia, which member states fear will weaken the fragile and strategically situated new state.

Officials emphasise the tremendous obstacles to coercing a nation-state in a system based on sovereignty. The theory has always been that peer pressure, legal sanction and public exposure will bring a country into line. But the Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou has massive public support for its actions, feels isolated from its allies in the EU and Nato, and fears attack from its conservative opposition if it backs down.

Athens is also running into worsening conflict with Tirana, following an attack on an Albanian border post on Sunday that left two soldiers dead. Albania blames Greece. Yesterday Albania upped the stakes in the row with Athens by asking the Greek ambassador to reduce his diplomatic staff in Tirana from 10 to six, following a tit-for-tat expulsion on Tuesday.

Albania says that a Greek unit of six or seven commandoes carried out the attack and accuses Greece of other cross- border provocations. On Tuesday it called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Greece.