ATHENS (Reuters) - The former Yugoslav state of Macedonia cannot start talks to join the European Union until a dispute over its name is solved, a Greek minister told Reuters.
Athens has disputed the name since Skopje declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and took the name of Macedonia, the same as Greece's northernmost province. Greece blocked its admission to NATO last year over that issue.
The European Commission recommended earlier this month that membership negotiations should be opened with the Balkan country, saying it had made enough progress on EU-required reforms. But all 27 EU states must agree for that to happen.
"The name issue must be solved before we can even think of opening accession negotiations with Skopje," said Dimitris Droutsas, who shares the foreign policy portfolio with Prime Minister George Papandreou.
"This a very clear and strict line Greece is taking," Droutsas told Reuters in an interview. "We are calling this the national red line."
Droutsas, who represents Greece in EU foreign ministers' meetings since the Socialists won an election on October 4, said the new government wanted to find a solution on the name.
"We have a... fresh, open-minded approach, we want cooperation in order to reach a settlement on the name issue," he told Reuters.
Skopje uses the name Macedonia in bilateral ties with several countries, but at the United Nations it is called The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. NATO and the EU also use the acronym FYROM.
Droutsas said Greece wanted to help all Balkan countries to join the bloc.
Although the EU has said it wants all former Yugoslav states to join the bloc as part of efforts to stabilize the region, only Slovenia has become a member so far and many EU states are reluctant to enlarge the bloc any further.
"During the recent years, momentum was almost lost. Let's set a new target here," Droutsas said, "the date by which we hope all these countries could become members of the EU. 2014 could be such a date."