For close to 19 years, the Greek-Macedonian dispute, which baffles the majority of Europeans, has inflamed passions in the Balkans. The argument hinges on the official name adopted by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Notwithstanding the will of a majority of the citizens of FYROM to this effect, Athens does not want the country to be called "Macedonia" — a name which it insists lays claim to a cultural and historical region of Greece.

Policy shift in Athens

There is no denying the tireless energy and bad faith displayed by protagonists on both sides, which have ensured that this issue has remained enmired in deadlock. The Macedonian negotiating position has amounted to little more than an series of endless provocative declarations about the historical origins of the people of Macedonia, while the Greeks have worked relentlessly to rebut these claims, and worse still, campaigned to undermine wider acceptance of the FYROM in international organisations.

As a result, Skopje has been unable to make progress in negotiations to join the European Union, and has yet to receive a long-awaited invitation to join NATO. At the same time, Athens has not gained anything from the quarrel, which has simply served to confirm its reputation as a stubborn trouble-maker that is unwilling to build good relations in the region.

In spite of the foregoing, hopes for an end to diplomatic sparring and a definitive settlement have been recently inspired by what appears to be a shift in Athens: to wit, a declaration by Greek Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dimitris Droutsas, who affirmed that "Northern Macedonia" was not wholly incompatible with his government's position, which has been interpreted as a signal that Greece may now be more willing to seek a compromise than it has been in the past.

Rest of Europe has other fish to fry

Of course, this does not mean that the negotiations conducted within the framework of the United Nations are about to come to a positive conclusion: first and foremost because the proposal is not new (and it has not succeeded in breaking the deadlock in the past), and secondly, because there is no guarantee that Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski will be willing to water down his "'Macedonia or nothing" position even if this is not to the taste of the 25% of his fellow citizens who are of Albanian origin. Nonetheless, the Droutsas declaration does mean that the ball is now in FYROM's court.

At the same time, there is hardly any interest in the debate in the rest of Europe. No doubt, EU authorities in Brussels would be pleased to learn that for once encouraging signals have resulted in positive action on the issue, but for the time being Europe is battling to deal with problems that are more significant than the issue of a name — even if the name in question is "Macedonia."