EU demands Balkans candidates step up reform
(BRUSSELS) - After bruising disputes with fledgling EU democracies in eastern Europe, Brussels demanded Wednesday that Serbia and other EU hopefuls in the western Balkans step up the pace of democratic reform.
Despite the economic crisis and the challenges of incorporating new democracies, the European Union remained committed to ushering in new members "to become part of our common democratic project", said the bloc's commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fuele.
But "more needs to be done" to strengthen the rule of law and democratic governance, he added, singling out Montenegro and Albania while also demanding a speed-up in reforms in Croatia before it formally becomes the 28th EU member in July.
It took Croatia seven years to align its legislation with EU standards and Fuele said this demonstrated the "transformative power" of enlargement, which "continues to contribute to peace, security and prosperity on our continent".
Presenting the European Commission's annual enlargement report, Fuele gave good marks to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, but told Serbia and Kosovo they could make no progress towards EU membership before patching up ties.
"We encourage Serbia to reinvigorate the momentum of its reforms and to continue to engage constructively in regional cooperation and building good relations with neighbouring countries," Fuele said.
"There needs to be a visible and sustainable improvement in relations between Serbia and Kosovo so that both can continue on their respective paths towards the European Union," he said.
The EU executive's 75-page paper summed up the progress and failings of the eight candidate nations currently queuing to join the bloc.
After tense rows in recent months over rights and media freedoms between Brussels and former communist states Hungary and Romania that joined the bloc in the 2004 "big bang" expansion, the commission noted it would place far greater emphasis in the future on the respect of European values by aspirant nations.
"The experience of recent enlargements and the challenges faced by enlargement countries underline the importance of placing the rule of law even more at the heart of enlargement policy," the report said.
Bosnia-Hercegovina was bluntly asked for "more work" before lodging "a credible" membership application.
Albania was hailed for "significant progress".
The Commission would ask EU leaders to grant Tirana candidate country status on condition it completed key judicial and administrative reforms, and reworked parliamentary rules.
It would also, for the fourth time, call for the opening of accession negotiations with Macedonia. This would help resolve a row with Greece over the name of the former Yugoslav state.
Likewise, the EU executive recommended signing an association agreement with Kosovo despite the fact that five EU states do not recognise its unilaterally declared independence -- but on condition Pristina continue an EU-sponsored dialogue with Belgrade.
The dialogue will be led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in the future, officials said.
But Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic criticised the EU demand, saying it could harm further dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
Montenegro, which opened accession negotiations in June, needed to improve work on rule of law issues, especially in the fight against crime and corruption, the report said.
Under the enlargement process, applicants win "candidate status" on condition of meeting a number of democratic standards -- Serbia and Macedonia are in this category -- and later are enabled to open accession negotiations to bring their legislation in line with EU rules in 35 areas, or chapters.
There was little new in this year's score-card on the other big candidates for membership -- Iceland, currently split over whether it would like to join, and Turkey, whose 25-year bid to join remains paralysed largely by its quarrel with EU member Cyprus.
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