Sweden urges EU ‘open door’ on Balkans

Sweden joined forces with Italy in Sarajevo on Wednesday to call on the EU to demonstrate that the "door is open" to Balkan country membership of the union.

Going into the Sarajevo summit, Swedish Foreign Minister and former Balkans peace envoy Carl Bildt said he expected “strong reaffirmation by the EU” of the prospects for the integration of Balkans nations.

“There are a number of countries where enthusiasm for enlargement is less than 100 percent these days. Then it is important that we come here to reaffirm and say … the door is open,” he said.

The meeting comes as concern mounts across the Balkans that Europe’s debt crisis and its problems absorbing the 12 nations that have joined the bloc since 2004 will slow down further enlargement.

Bildt’s Italian colleague Franco Frattini said he expected “a very ambitious commitment to be taken by EU together with the US and Russia,” whose officials

are also at the high-level meeting.

“I would expect Europe not (to be) shy in reaffirming its commitment. If member states are reluctant it is up to the European institutions to do their part,” Frattini said.

Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, organised the meeting, also attended by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele.

In Serbia, the top official charged with overseeing EU integration, government vice president Bozidar Djelic, warned in the Blic daily against having “unrealistic expectations” of the summit.

The Balkan states are hoping that besides promises for the future, the 27-member EU will also show some decisive action on expanding its borders.

Bosnia and Albania hope Brussels will soon allow visa liberalisation for their nationals while Belgrade wants the EU quickly to ratify the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the first step towards membership.

Within the EU there is growing reluctance over enlargement amid fears that it could affect the financial stability of the union as it battles a giant debt crisis that threatens to spread from Greece to other nations.

Apart from Croatia, the western Balkans nations are among the poorest to have applied for EU membership.

The only economic success story from the region so far, Slovenia, is already an EU member. Croatia is currently well advanced in accession talks and hopes to join by 2012.

But while Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo have all expressed the wish to join the EU, they are still at the beginning of the process.

In Wednesday’s meeting the EU and the Balkans countries are expected to welcome the region’s progress over the last decade, from being wracked by conflict to embarking on the road to prosperity.

Brussels has supported the European ambitions of these former communist states in order to ensure stability in the region, which suffered during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The EU has pushed reconciliation at the summit as the bloc insists that all potential members must have good relations with their neighbours.

But Brussels warned Tuesday ahead of the meeting that challenges remain for the EU hopefuls, notably in the areas of the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime and press freedom.

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