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EU Defers Macedonia Talks Decision Until 2010

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- The European Union has deferred a decision on opening membership talks with Macedonia, after neighboring Greece opposed an early start to the negotiations.

A statement agreed by EU foreign ministers in Brussels today said they would consider the issue again during the Spanish EU presidency, which runs from January 1 until June 30, 2010.

Macedonia had hoped EU leaders would set a date for the start of negotiations at a summit this week, after the executive European Commission supported the move in October.

But Athens opposes Macedonia's EU entry because of issues over Macedonia's name. Macedonia is the name of a Greek province bordering the former Yugoslav republic and Athens regards the overlap as an encroachment on its sovereignty.

"The council notes that the commission recommends the opening of accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and will return to the matter during the next presidency," the ministers said in a statement.

An earlier draft statement said the ministers would consider the issue in March 2010, with a view to setting a date for the opening of accession negotiations.

An EU diplomat said Athens had indicated it would not consider lifting its block on Macedonia's progress until after Greek presidential election in March 2010.

French Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche said on December 7 that ministers were divided, with Greece opposing the mention of a date to start negotiations and other countries wanting the talks to start as soon as possible.

He said France -- which wants to delay any further EU enlargement after the expected accession of Croatia and Iceland in 2012 -- had backed Greece as a sign of solidarity, even if it was in the EU's interests to start talks as soon as possible.

The approved statement welcomed Macedonia's progress in reform, in particular the fight against corruption. It called on Macedonia to ensure the independence of the judiciary.

Macedonia has made progress in forging closer ties with the EU in the last few months and the bloc is to lift visa restrictions on its citizens on December 19. But Greece remains an obstacle and it prevented Macedonia from joining NATO last year.

The EU ministers stressed the need for a resolution of the name issue and of maintaining good neighborly relations. At the same time they said they were encouraged by recent positive developments in relations between Greece and Macedonia.