Croatia gets reassurance on EU bid
EU enlargement, particularly to the Western Balkan countries, is set to feature high on the agenda of the bloc's two presidencies in 2009, with Croatia seen as likely to conclude its EU membership talks next year, said the Czech Republic and Sweden - the next two member states to hold the EU's six-month rotating chairmanship after France.
The Balkans seem to have been somehow "forgotten in the light of the current [Georgia] crisis," Czech deputy prime minister Alexandr Vondra, whose country will assume the EU's presidency in the first half of 2009, said at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday (2 September).
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"We expect to move talks to the final stage with at least Croatia [during the Czech EU presidency]," he added.
EU-Croatia accession talks were launched in 2005. The country is hoping to finalise them next year and become the EU's 28th member by 2011 at the latest.
Following Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon treaty in June, some EU leaders - including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel - have said that no further EU enlargement will take place until the document is ratified.
But Mr Vondra insisted there was "no reason to create a linkage" between Croatia's EU bid and "something else."
Swedish foreign minister Cecilla Malmstrom, whose country will take over the EU's rotating chair after the Czech Republic, also sent a positive signal to Zagreb.
"Depending on developments in Croatia and on the commission's opinion, it will indeed be possible to conclude the negotiations with Croatia during the Swedish EU presidency [starting 1 July 2009], which would be very good of course," she said.
During the presentation of their common programme, the current presidential trio - France, the Czech Republic and Sweden - also stressed their general support for the whole Balkan region and its "path towards EU integration."
"The whole region will be a priority during our consecutive presidencies," Ms Malmstrom pointed out.
Besides the Balkans, the EU will during these 18 months also focus on strengthening its relations with other neighbours, notably by "building the Eastern Partnership" - an idea put forward by Poland and Sweden earlier this year in order to strengthen the bloc's relations with its eastern neighbours.
Transatlantic relations in a post-US presidential elections context will also figure high on the agenda and hopes are that they will be "energised," the ministers said.
The three countries also put forward as common priorities the adoption of the EU's climate package and improving the bloc's energy security.
Migration and asylum issues, and work on ways to boost the EU's competitiveness will also be on the agenda.