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Europe

EU Holds Tentative Carrot out to Balkans

The European Union will try to reassure Balkan leaders Saturday that it still wants them in its club, despite clear doubts in some EU capitals alarmed at the prospect of yet another enlargement.

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Setting the table for a larger EU? Many are reluctant to take on new members

EU foreign ministers will be joined by their counterparts from Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and Croatia for informal talks on progress in preparing the former war-torn region for EU entry.

"At the heart of our meeting will be strengthening these countries' European perspective," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, hosting the talks as current holder of the EU's rotating presidency.

"Of course we are not talking about rushing things... but we don't want either to put our foot on the brake arbitrarily," she added, saying the EU cannot go back on promises because of "enlargement fatigue."

EU Gipfel Erweiterung in Athen

2003 EU summit in Greece - the mood was better back then

The promises in question were made at an EU summit in Greece in 2003, when the then 15-nation bloc was flushed with eager anticipation of the addition of 10 new members, with its single currency project just coming to fruition.

Big bang headache

What a difference three years makes: since the "big bang" expansion in May 2004 EU enthusiasm has gone from bad to worse, hitting rock bottom with a double referendum rejection of a long-hailed EU constitution last year.

In the Balkans, reforms have gone on nonetheless, and with them EU hopes.

Croatia is furthest advanced, opening EU entry talks last October; Macedonia was given candidate status in December while Macedonia is hoping to conclude an association and stabilization accord with the EU in the coming months.

Moving somewhat slower, Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia-Hercegovina began talks on association accords, the first step on the EU road, late last year.

Britischer NATO-Soldat in Mazedonien

A British NATO in Macedonia

"Changing our mind would create a real risk of instability," said one EU source, warning that the prospect of joining the mainstream was the "glue" which keeps the Balkans from collapsing into chaos again.

But at least two upcoming events risk reviving tensions: talks on the final status of the UN-run Serb province of Kosovo, and a referendum on independence in Montenegro in May.

Promises vs. reality

EU governments are watching closely; and some, without formally opposing their EU hopes, are increasingly insisting that the bloc ensures a careful balance between its promises and the demands that it makes of the Balkans nations.

"Everything is a question of language, of degrees of enthusiasm," said the EU source, adding that traditional EU heavyweights France and Germany in particular are pushing for a touch on the brakes.

"We have to be realistic, restate the European perspective, but also underline certain criteria like the EU's absorption capacity," said a French diplomat.

EU-Erweiterung, Feier zum Beitritt von Polen

After the enlargement party, the hangnover has set in

"Absorption capacity" is a phrase with growing weight in EU capitals since last year's annus horribilis, which highlighted the gulf between the EU elite's ambitions and public doubts over the half-century old project.

With that skepticism mounting, the conditions set for each EU hopeful are being more closely watched: for Belgrade and Sarajevo they include in particular the demand to cooperate with UN war crimes prosecutors.

Serbia came under a spotlight last month when hopes surged for the capture of former Bosnian Serb army leader Ratko Mladic, who along with his boss Radovan Karadzic is one of the "biggest fish" evading capture in the Balkans.

Unfortunately for Belgrade, the hopes came to nothing and Mladic slipped through the net again.

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