Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, the head of the ruling coalition’s junior party, called on the migration minister to resign on Wednesday for failing to use the full name of northern neighbour the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Yannis Mouzalas called it simply ‘Macedonia’ in a late-night interview on Tuesday, accidentally launching himself into a long and bitter dispute over the proper title of the territory.
Mouzalas quickly apologised for what he said was a blunder, but other members of the government backed him, saying the row was a dangerous distraction from his efforts to deal with Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War Two.
“I asked for Mouzalas to resign on his own, to protect the government and leave,” Kammenos told Mega TV, saying it was a serious matter for his right-wing Independent Greeks party.
“The effort to weaken the minister, who struggles every day to handle the refugee crisis, is irresponsible and hypocritical, particularly ahead of the upcoming EU leaders summit,” the government as a whole said a statement.
Many Greeks feel a strong emotional tie to the name Macedonia, used historically to describe the birthplace of Alexander the Great and part of ancient Greece.
Some also worry its modern-day use by a separate country covering much of the same territory implies a claim on the northern Greek province of the same name.
The modern country, which emerged from Yugoslavia in 1991, is officially listed as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the United Nations.
Kammenos said he had passed on his concerns to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, head of the dominant left-wing Syriza party.
“I continue to support this government and Tsipras until the end but I have red lines. Since the minister recognises that he made a huge gaffe, he should go home,” Kammenos said.
The ruling coalition is clinging to a thin parliamentary majority, and needs the Independent Greeks party on side to pass reforms under a third financial; bailout clinched last year. The coalition has a three-seat majority in the 300-seat parliament.
The spat is unlikely to rattle the coalition but reflects underlying differences between the two parties that are on opposite poles of the political spectrum.
Neighbouring Macedonia lies along the now closed Balkan migration route refugees have used to head to central and northern Europe. The closure has led to logjams along the border with more than 12,000 refugees and migrants camped there.