SKOPJE, Macedonia – Macedonia will take a big step to joining the European Union if the country supports a name change to "North Macedonia," the official in charge of the bloc's enlargement negotiations said Tuesday.
Following talks with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in the capital Skopje, Johannes Hahn said the Sept. 30 vote is a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for Macedonians to improve their daily lives.
A vote to authorize the name change would be an important step towards resolving a long-standing dispute with neighbor Greece, which has raised objections to Macedonia's EU accession as well as blocking its NATO membership.
Greece has long sought a name change because it says the current one implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, and on its ancient heritage.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also voiced hope that the country will be able to start EU accession talks next June.
But he also called on the Macedonian leadership to continue with reforms that the EU has been requesting for years to bring the country in line with 'EU criteria.
"More reforms are needed on all topics — rule of law, fighting organized crime and corruption," Maas said after talks with his Macedonian counterpart, Nikola Dimitrov in Skopje.
Dozens of western officials including German chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have visited Skopje in recent weeks to encourage turnout in the vote — which will only be valid if just over fifty percent of registered voters participate.
Commissioner Hahn said the deal is "appreciated" by the international community, because it would solve a long-running dispute.
"It is a proof for everybody that so-called frozen conflicts can be resolved if (leaders) have a determination to solve the issue," Hahn said.
"This agreement has an impact (that) goes far beyond the EU."
If Macedonians vote for the deal in the referendum, the country's parliament must then amend the constitution to adopt the new name. For the deal to come into effect, Greece's parliament would then have to ratify it.