Western Balkans' future is in European Union: EU
The European Union reiterated Wednesday its commitment to integrating Western Balkans countries but said there would be no short-cuts to membership and each state would progress on its own merits.
Brussels and the Balkans agreed at talks in Sarajevo on a "new deal" confirming the region's future in the bloc, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told reporters after the meeting.
"A deal of the future -- a future of hope, a future of peace, a future of full integration in the EU," added Moratinos, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
The high-level meeting came as concern mounts in the Balkans that Europe's debt crisis and the bloc's problems absorbing the 12 nations that have joined since 2004 will slow down further enlargement.
But the EU took care to reiterate "its unequivocal commitment" to integrate the Western Balkan states, which suffered a series of bloody wars during the break up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"The future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union," Moratinos said in a statement.
Of the states, only Slovenia is already an EU member while Croatia is in membership negotiations. Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania are all at the beginning of their membership applications.
Kosovo has not yet applied because its independence is not recognised by five EU member countries while Bosnia-Hercegovina can also not apply as it is still partly under international guardianship.
EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said the Sarajevo conference showed a "new momentum for enlargement."
"Reaffirming the European perspective of this region at a time when the European Union is struggling with an economic and financial crisis I think is the best proof of the importance of this (enlargement) policy," he said.
The European officials however stressed each country would only be admitted to the 27-member bloc based "on its own merits".
Challenges remain for the EU hopefuls, notably on the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, and press freedom, they added.
And any hopes the EU would move decisively towards expanding its borders, for instance by setting a date for visa-free travel for Bosnian and Albanian nationals, were disappointed.
Brussels firmly put the ball in the bloc's court, stressing each country had to work to meet the criteria for accession to the European Union.
"The international community and the EU have committed and have delivered their part. Now (it) is also our friends from the Western Balkans that have to do also their part," Moratinos told reporters.
French Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche said in an interview with AFP: "We are ready to continue helping massively (...) but we simply expect from local political authorities that they get to work, especially in Bosnia."
The EU pushed Balkan reconciliation at the summit, since it insists all potential members must have good relations with their neighbours.
While the meeting in itself was a testament to improved regional ties -- it was the first time Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic sat at the same table with his Kosovo counterpart Skender Hyseni -- there is much still to be done.
For Belgrade to attend, all state names or symbols had to be removed from the talks and participants identified only by name since Serbia does not recognise the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo.
Macedonia is also involved in a long-running name row with its EU neighbour Greece which has so far blocked Skopje's accession, and Bosnia and Albania are each paralysed by political crisis.
© 2010 AFP