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15th Dec 2019

EU gives green light for Macedonia accession talks

  • Celebratory balloons were floated for the big bang round of enlargement in 2004 (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission on Wednesday (14 October) issued a series of assessments of countries hoping to join the EU and said enlargement should not be made a "scapegoat" of Europe's current economic problems.

The reports contained the usual Brussels mix of criticism interspersed with praise and rewards for progress towards EU norms.

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The small republic of Macedonia was told that it was ready to start membership talks, a move that would put it on the same level as Croatia and Turkey in terms of EU relations.

EU commissioner Olli Rehn, in charge of enlargement, said the Macedonian government should see the move as "very strong encouragement" to "finally settle the name issue," however. The reference concerns an 18-year old dispute between Macedonia and neighbouring Greece about the use of the name Macedonia.

Croatia, hoping to join the EU in 2011, is "nearing the finishing line" after years of negotiations, said Mr Rehn, but needs to further tackle corruption and organised crime "before negotiations can be concluded."

The commission report urges Turkey to do more to ensure freedom of expression and freedom of religion as well as bolster the rights of women and trade unions.

Ankara has been lagging far behind Zagreb in its EU progress in part due to poor relations with EU member Cyprus, with whom it still has to fully implement a customs agreement. Progress is also slow due to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of several member states for Turkish membership and the pace of Turkish domestic reform.

But with Turkey itself lately taking a more bullish tone about what it can offer the EU in terms of energy security, Brussels was careful to stress the country's importance for "energy supplies" and "promoting dialogue with civilisations."

Of the remaining five entities - Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo - that want to join the EU, Mr Rehn had the most to say about Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The war-torn country was recently given an ultimatum by the EU and the US to sort out internal problems between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs by 20 October.

Defining the country as of "paramount importance for the region and for the European Union," Mr Rehn said that Bosnia and Herzegovina could only consider an application for EU membership once it "can stand on its own two feet."

"No quasi-protectorate can join the EU," he said, spelling out that the Office of High Representative would have to be closed down first. The post was created as part of the peace deal that ended the 1992-1995 war in the country, and can only be closed after a positive international assessment.

Meanwhile, the Serbian government, which is being pushed to arrest two war crimes suspects from the 1990s, was praised for being "stable" and "demonstrating" a high degree of consensus on EU integration as a strategic priority."

But even as the EU tries to bind all of the countries of the western Balkans and Turkey ever more closely through political and economic ties and the promise of eventual membership, there are continuous doubts about whether it has the political appetite to go through with another large round of expansion.

Apart from Croatia, strongly supported by Germany and where EU membership is virtually assured, internal EU question marks remain over the rest.

"It's important we don't scapegoat enlargement" for some "ills" that were not caused by enlargement, Mr Rehn said, adding that the current economic crisis was not made in the streets of Belgrade but rather on Wall Street.

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