Challenging France, Mitsotakis Backs North Macedonia, Albania EU Hopes

Αssociated Press

FILE- French President Emmanuel Macron, right, welcomes Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the Elysee Palace, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 in Paris. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

LONDON- Apparently retreating from his pledge to put up a roadblock to North Macedonia’s hopes of beginning European Union accession talks unless that country stops labeling products as “Macedonian,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he supports Greece’s neighbor, as well as Albania joining the bloc.

French President Emmanuel Macron has put a stop to that, concerned about corruption in the Balkans in a process that requires unanimous consent. Greece for two decades vetoed the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) hopes but that country’s name was changed to North Macedonia in a 2018 deal with Greece’s then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA.

Mitsotakis - whose father was Premier in 1991 and let the new country emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia take the name of the ancient Greek province Macedonia in what was supposed to be a temporary deal - opposed the name deal but said he couldn’t reverse it.

In an interview with the Financial Times, he said Macron was wrong to put up obstacles for North Macedonia and Albania. “I hope that this mistake is going to be corrected,” he said, also taking issue with the French leader characterizing NATO as “brain-dead.”

That came just ahead of a defense alliance summit marking its 70th anniversary, with Mitsotakis acknowledging some of Macron’s concerns were legitimate but that the way he described them were problematic.

“Sometimes the language itself is also important, and it ends up bringing about the opposite results,” he said. “It’s one thing to say Nato is in need of reform, and it’s completely different to actually say that NATO is brain-dead.”

“I do agree that Europe as a whole needs to develop more defence capabilities, but discarding Nato as a pillar of peace in the post-world war two world goes too far for my taste,” said Mitsotakis.

That was before NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he wouldn’t intervene to try to stop Turkish provocations in seas around Greece - the two countries are members - and as Turkey continues to drill for oil and gas off Cyprus.

Mitsotakis said that Greece had “its issues with Turkey” but preferred diplomacy, which hasn’t worked yet as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has continued to step up provocations with no one moving to stop him.

Asked about Russian interference in the Western Balkans, Mitsotakis said: “I was worried, I am worried, and I will continue to be worried. That is why I think that the decision taken at the (European) Council needs to be revisited in 2020.”

Macron’s decision to veto further EU enlargement angered other countries, especially Berlin - although both countries stand in the way of Turkey joining the bloc, a process that has been going on since 2005, set back by Erdogan’s crackdown on civil society and the media after a failed July, 2016 attempted coup against him.

Mitsotakis said that, “If we look at the big geopolitical context, it is very clear that the European path needs to be kept open for all Western Balkan countries, provided they meet the requirements, this is not an automatic process, otherwise this void is going to be filled. “And I also take some cues from Greece’s story, in 1979 Greece [concluded negotiations to become] a member of the European Economic Community, because a French president, at the time, took a bold decision, looking at the bigger geopolitical context, that Greece had to belong to Europe in order to overcome the trauma of the junta,” he said.

“Was Greece ready to join at the time? Who knows. And of course the process was very different at the time. But it was a geopolitical decision, it was a most important decision for the future of the country, in retrospect.”