Interviews and Speeches

Column of MFA Nikola Poposki for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

What can Greece do to improve its reputation?



An inflow of migrants, conflicts in neighboring countries, a large debt burden, low amount of tax collection, loss of jobs, general uncertainty – if you ask an average German taxpayer today, which country these phenomena associate of, he would probably point to the country of Homer.

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If you pose the same question to an average Macedonian taxpayer, he would probably return in his thoughts to the nineties, when Macedonia became an independent country and was in the same situation: an inflow of migrants, conflicts in neighboring countries, large debt burden, low tax collection, loss of jobs, general uncertainty. The situation at that time became even more complicated because the aspirations of Macedonia to come closer to the EU and NATO were obstructed by the illegal request of Greece to change the name of our country. Macedonia in Athens was presented as a threat to the territorial integrity and security of Greece. But was this really the case?

We have to admit that Macedonia, just after it became an independent country, was facing huge difficulties. Its army did not deserve that name; the economy was ruined, while on the other side of the continent, the project of European integration was in its best years. Germany worked to spread the benefit of a united Europe with the Eastern European countries. It was more than reasonable: by stabilization of the democracies, the general feeling of security was spreading, and the markets got the opportunity by offering various possibilities to improve the general welfare.

Greece was (and seems still is) well positioned to play the same role with Macedonia as Germany played with Poland. But, it is a fact that Greece played the opposite role. This may be said to be: “We are inside, you are outside – it will remain like that until we deem it necessary.” The blockade in the European integration had a destabilizing influence on the economy and society in Macedonia. At the same time, Greece was taking a strategic position in the European community, the country was leader in spending the European funds, enjoyed the support of the probably second most influential diaspora in the world measured by economic power, spent the most money on defense than any other country in Europe. Measured with these, the embargo against Macedonia was only a minor thing.   Now, everything is different – or is it? Greek enterprises are in the top five most important investors in Macedonia. Greece is the third trading partner of our country.

Today, we can agree that no one is presenting a threat to the other. On the contrary, the opportunities are numerous. Macedonia is a favorable destination for investors; the Macedonian currency in the last 17 years has been stable, first attached to the German mark, than to the euro. The public debt is around 40% of GDP, which is one of the lowest in Europe. The European Commission predicts that Macedonia this and next year will have the highest growth in Europe. But, none of these facts succeeded in creating conditions for Macedonia in the past decade to become closer to the European Union or NATO. Since 2008, Greece successfully has blocked the NATO membership of Macedonia  -- although accession is supported by the other members – asking for a change in the name of the country. The same argument for years has been used in terms of our EU membership, even though that the International Court of Justice in 2011 declared the blockade unlawful.   The Macedonians do not have any reason to rejoice in the current difficulties in Greece, which is also the case with the Germans. The difficulties facing Greece can only have negative influence on the region and the whole European Union. The bets that the weakened condition of the neighbor offers opportunities for us are unfounded.

In the case of Macedonia, it will just show that we did not learn anything from the mistakes of others. Our response to the 2010 Greek crises must be different from the Greek answer to our crisis that we had in the nineties.   To the rest of the Europeans, Greece can show that it took the leading role in regional integration. One benevolent attitude in context of the wish of Macedonia for beginning of the negotiations with EU would be welcomed as a gesture of pragmatism and solidarity. It would have suited the solidarity that Greece gains day to day from the EU.   The stabilization of the Balkans can take place only through its integration in the EU. Nothing else offers better guaranty for that, than a reliable process of European integration.

That is exactly what has been missing for Macedonia for years, and exactly that is above all needed at this moment. The breakthrough in the start of the EU membership negotiations would help mitigate local tensions and would shed a positive light on the EU member countries from the Balkans. At this point, Greece has the opportunity to do something for its reputation. It would be the key for finishing the European project – united, free, and peaceful.