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Wall Street Journal / News

Macedonia, Greece Close to Ending Decades-Old Dispute Over Name

Greece and its neighbor, Macedonia, are close to resolving a decades-old dispute that has prevented the small Balkan country from joining the European Union, creating a rare bright spot in a region where hopes of joining the bloc remain largely on hold.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev attend the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Thursday.

SOFIA, Bulgaria—Greece and its neighbor, Macedonia, are close to resolving a decades-old dispute that has prevented the small Balkan country from joining the European Union, creating a rare bright spot in a region where hopes of joining the bloc remain largely on hold.

Greece has long blocked Macedonia’s EU membership because of its long-running objections the country’s name. The former part of Yugoslavia, then known as the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, adopted the shortened version Macedonia when it became independent 27 years ago.

That triggered a dispute with neighboring Greece, which contains a neighboring region called Macedonia—named, like the country to its north, after the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great. Athens has used its veto power to keep the newcomer out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to block EU accession talks. As a result, the provisional name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, is used by international organizations and countries that don’t recognize the state, although about 140 countries recognize its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, agreed in Sofia on nearly all the parameters of an international deal, according to several officials. It is most likely that the the Balkan nation will go by the new name “Upper Macedonia,” officials from both countries said.

If they manage to iron out the last details, the two countries could strike a final deal before the next summit of EU leaders in late June, when the European Commission could vote to start accession talks with Macedonia.

The two countries have been keen to come to an agreement before the next NATO summit on July 11.

Any accord would require approval by parliaments in both countries. Macedonia’s fragile government would also have to revise the country’s constitution to reflect the changes.

Meanwhile, doubts among EU members about the pace of the bloc’s enlargement and conditions for admitting new countries are spelling a long wait for Macedonia’s Balkan neighbors.

Pressed by concerns about Russian, Chinese and Turkish influence in the Balkans, the EU’s executive earlier this year set 2025 as a target date for enlarging the bloc to at least the most advanced of the nonmember Balkan countries, namely Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia, aside from Macedonia.

However, at a meeting of EU and Balkan leaders in the Bulgarian capital on Thursday, the obstacles to enlargement were again on display. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose country faces its own secession issues with Catalonia and is one of five EU members not to recognize the former Serbian province of Kosovo as an independent country, left the meeting early.

French President Emmanuel Macron said previous enlargements had contributed to a weakening of the EU over the past 15 years. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she preferred to focus on the speed of economic, judicial and political reforms in the aspirant members, not target dates.

"Opening up a time horizon I think isn’t so important,” she said in a press conference.

After the wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the EU lost focus on the region as the bloc was consumed by its own internal crises. Nonetheless, Bulgaria and Romania became members in 2007 and Croatia joined in 2013. Brussels currently sees Serbia and Montenegro as the Balkan countries best placed to join.

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