26th Oct 2016

EU summit marks big moment for Western Balkans

Leaders on Friday (28 June) endorsed the launch of Serbia accession talks and welcomed Croatia's impending EU entry.

They said the first round of Serbia talks will take place no later than January 2014.

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"This is indeed historic … We must not forget that no so long ago in this part of Europe, we saw one of the most violent wars and now we are starting negotiations," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told press, referring to the 1990s Balkan conflicts.

Noting that leaders also backed talks on a pre-accession pact with Serbia's old enemy, Kosovo, he added: "This is a demonstration of the powers of attraction the European Union has."

With the bulk of the summit devoted to anti-crisis measures, Barroso highlighted another decision - to let Latvia join the euro.

"Not long ago, many people were talking about the euro breaking up. What we are seeing is the opposite - we have another member of the euro area from the beginning of next year," he said.

For his part, EU Council head Herman Van Rompuy downplayed the importance of a technicality on Serbia.

The small print says EU leaders, not foreign ministers, must sign off a European Commission negotiating mandate before the talks take place.

The detail raises the risk that leaders might punish Serbia if it backslides on a deal to mend relations with Kosovo.

But Van Rompuy noted: "This is normal practice that we are following. When the European Council confirms the mandate, it will not add any additional conditions."

The summit took place just 48 hours before Croatia celebrates EU accession.

Barroso and Van Rompuy are going to Zagreb for festivities on Sunday and to Belgrade and Pristina on Monday.

"You are most welcome, Zoran, in this club," Van Rompuy told Croatian leader Zoran Milanovic earlier on Friday.

Milanovic said: "I am sort of emotional at this moment … Twenty two years ago it looked as though everything would be resolved in a few weeks' time. Then the war happened."

He added: "We will do everything and anything to help and assist our neighbours who are not yet in the club."

The adhesion of the small country will see the EU's population rise from 502.4 million to 506.8 million.

Croatia's EU commissioner is to handle consumer affairs. Zagreb also gets seven votes in the EU Council and 12 MEPs, while the commission is hiring 249 Croatian officials, including a director general.

The French and German leaders said next to nothing on Croatia in their press briefings.

In a minor blip, Germany's Angela Merkel last week cancelled her trip to Sunday's celebrations in Zagreb.

Her people said it is due to agenda reasons. But Croatian and German media say it is linked to Zagreb's refusal to extradite a Yugoslav-era spy wanted for murder.

In another blip, which highlights Croatia's struggle to curb high-level corruption, Finnish prosecutors on Friday said they will try three people for bribing Croatian officials in an arms deal.

Meanwhile, grim economic figures will see Zagreb fall foul of EU benchmarks the minute it joins.

Its deficit is to hit 4.7 percent this year, breaking the EU's 3 percent rule, while its debt is heading for 62.5 percent, compared to the EU's 60 percent norm.

After four years of recession, unemployment is 18 percent, rising to 51 percent for the under-25s.

Milanovic told French daily Le Monde on Friday it is "absurd" to compare Croatia with bailout country Greece.

Noting his government's mix of left-wing and liberal policies, he added: "At the risk of sounding pretentious, I would say our vision is the Scandinavian [economic] model."

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