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A conflict over a name is never just a fight about words. And the conflict between Skopje and Athens was never just about a name. It touched upon deeper issues. It touched upon identity.
It is a conflict steeped in history – a history of mutual irritation and provocation. Its consequences were grave:
- For 27 years, it hampered the economic integration of the entire Region.
- It stalled Euro-Atlantic Integration.
- And it was a constant source of dispute – between the two countries, within them, but also in international relations.
So what made the difference after 27 long years? The answer is: You did, Prime Minister Tsipras and Prime Minister Zaev.
We honour your courage. The courage to say: “We can solve this. We won’t let a conflict of the past dim the prospects for our future.” The courage that it took to agree on painful compromises, and to fight for the Prespa-Agreement - despite fierce opposition in both of your countries. I can’t think of many Heads of Government, Prime Minister Tsipras, who would stay their course, even if it they risked their coalition government.
Both of you defied the odds. Solving the name issue was never a “low-hanging fruit”. Hundreds of diplomats - from your countries, the United Nations, the EU and NATO - left no stone unturned to find a solution. Over the course of the years, UN Special Representative Matthew Nimetz proposed dozens of different names. Actually, when he started working on the issue, the two of you were still at university. And your foreign ministers, my colleagues Nikola and Nicos, spent days and nights negotiating with each other.
The real struggle, however, began after the signing ceremony. When I visited Athens and Skopje in September, prospects for the implementation of the Agreement seemed gloomy. A massive campaign against it was under way – supported also by interested foreign countries. In Greece, thousands of people were protesting in the streets.
What restored my hope was your optimism. When I asked Prime Minister Zaev how to steer the Agreement through the ratification phase, he smiled and said: “If it was easy, it would not be us who had to do it.” That was the spirit in which you always negotiated. It guaranteed your success.
You managed to turn the page on the conflicts of the past. You opened a new chapter of good-neighbourly relations. And you paved the way for North Macedonia to become NATO’s newest ally and to move quickly towards the European Union.
Your success stretches beyond the region. It inspires the world. One of my international colleagues said to me a few weeks ago: “These days our hope is coming from the Balkans.”
This says a lot about the scale of your achievement. But it also says a lot about the current state of the world. A world where might seems to be right.
In that world, Europe is left with just one choice: unite or decline!
You always understood that. You chose the path of compromise and respect, of peace and regional stability. In essence: You chose the European way! At a time when populists are arguing that the European Union wants to erase our national identities, you gave them a powerful lesson: We are not losing anything by acting European.
On the contrary: Europe means gaining an additional identity – a European one. You can be a proud citizen of Skopje, of North Macedonia and of Europe at the same time. The beauty of our European identity is: It unites us in our diversity.
Prime Minister Zaev, Prime Minister Tsipras,
Ewald von Kleist shared many of the traits that you have demonstrated. He rejected all forms of nationalism. He showed great courage when he joined the resistance to put an end to the Nazi regime. And he never stopped believing in the ability of humans to work together for peace.
And so I could not think of two more dignified recipients of the Ewald von Kleist Award than you, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev.
Congratulations on the Ewald von Kleist Award! And thank you for being true European leaders!