EU presses Greece on Skopje embargo

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THE European Union will take Greece to court if it does not drop its embargo on the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, it was announced yesterday.

Athens has one week to change its stance, said Hans van den Broek, the Commissioner for external political affairs. 'The measures should be lifted,' he said. The new tough stance follows repeated attempts to broker a settlement between Greece and Macedonia, which Greece claims has territorial ambitions in the Greek province of the same name.

The Commission is not judging the rights and wrongs of the case, just Greece's breach of European law, said Mr van den Broek. 'This does not means that on the substance of the dispute we are pointing the finger towards Greece,' he said. But, 'even if the cause is right, the means are wrong'.

Taking Greece to the European Court of Justice would be a drastic step, particularly as the country holds the presidency of the European Union.

But the Commission contends Greek sanctions against Macedonia break EU trade law. It says Athens has 'unjustifiably' claimed the support of a law that protects national security in using trade measures. A court case could take two or three years. But yesterday officials said they would expedite the matter to bring a swift judgment.

The EU fears that by weakening Macedonia, Greece is undermining Balkan security. Greece counters that the government in Skopje is itself a threat to Greek security. In February, Athens blocked trade with Macedonia through the Greek port of Salonika. Large demonstrations have backed the actions of the Socialist Pasok government, and the country is full of signs asserting that Macedonia is part of Greece, and that the name has been hijacked.

The European Commission believes that if Greece shows signs of flexibility, Macedonia might compromise on the some of the key issues that divide the two states. Mr van den Broek called on Skopje to make concessions on its constitution and flag so that 'a simultaneous solution to all outstanding issues' could be achieved. During a recent visit by the Macedonian President, Kiro Gligorov, to European capitals, he received strong backing from the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel. 'Foreign Minister Kinkel voiced understanding that the Macedonian government does not want to negotiate under the pressure of an embargo,' a German spokesman said. Several members of the European Union - including Germany - want to use Macedonia as a route to repatriate refugees to Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia in former Yugoslavia.