Greeks get slap on wrist over Macedonia

GREECE has broken European law by putting a trade embargo on Macedonia, a spokesman for the European Commission said yesterday. But though the country's EU colleagues united in criticism of the move, they did little more than administer a slap on the wrist.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, will raise the issue when he visits Athens next Monday and Tuesday, British sources say.

Greece disputes the right of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to use a name that is also used for an adjacent Greek province, saying that this constitutes a claim on Greek territory. It also wants Skopje, as Greece calls the state, to change its constitution and stop using what Athens claims are uniquely Greek national symbols. To force concessions, it closed the port to certain imports for Macedonia, which may include oil.

But EU states are supposed to adhere to a common trade regime, maintain a common foreign policy and keep each other informed about their actions. The decision by the Greek government last week to block Macedonian imports through the port of Salonika was a 'clear infraction' of EU trade rules and case law, the spokesman said yesterday. The Commission's legal services had asked for an explanation from Athens, he added.

Jacques Delors, the Commission President, yesterday reminded the Greek Deputy Foreign Minister, Theodoros Pangalos, that as the guardian of the EU founding treaty, the Commission had a duty to see that it was respected. The Commission seems to be paving the way for legal action in the European Court of Justice if Athens does not budge.

The Commission has also dispatched Hans van den Broek, the Foreign Affairs Commissioner, to Skopje and Athens to attempt to solve the bilateral problem. Greece is particularly angry that its EU partners and the US recognised Macedonia and sent diplomats there against Greek wishes and without obtaining guarantees from the regime. To some extent it has got what it wanted: an international focus on the problem. If an international conference is convened on the Balkans, Greece will push for a solution to the problem there.

However, as ministers met in Brussels yesterday, there seemed to be little appetite for any sustained attack on Greece. The atmosphere was described as 'firm' by British government sources; a series of diplomatic demarches have been made; and yesterday the Foreign Office called in the Greek ambassador. But at the moment, Greece is still promising an 'explanation'.

The Greek action comes at a difficult time. Athens currently holds the presidency of the European Union, a rotating post that lasts six months. Policy in the Balkans is one of the most important issues on the agenda, and Greece is in a sensitive position. None of Greece's partners seems keen to over-antagonise the government, mainly because they do not wish to cause a damaging split. They are also aware that much of the government's rhetoric is for public consumption.

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