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Europe

Hopes for the "European Jigsaw's Missing Piece"

Following an intense debate about a new draft constitution, EU leaders on Saturday shifted to focusing on the European Union's near neighbors in the Balkans -- five states which hope to join the EU in the next years.

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A skeptical, yet hopeful Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova at the EU summit in Greece

European leaders welcomed western Balkan countries on Saturday to talks on forging closer economic and political ties.

Five Balkan countries hope to join the union within the next few years: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. All five are keen to join the European Union, but face a long and hard climb to reaching their goal of full EU membership.

"The speed of movement ahead lies in the hands of the countries of the region", the EU and the five states said in a declaration issued at a western Balkans summit in Porto Carras, Greece, on Saturday. The meeting follows a two-day summit where EU leaders discussed issues from immigration to agriculture and decided on further steps towards a future European convention.

Heavy pressure to reform

The EU have urged the Balkan states to step up the fight against organized crime, speedup reform of finance and administration and increase co-operation with war crimes tribunals. "We expect strong action on reforming state structures to eliminate the widespread curse of corruption", Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said. "We expect energetic, totally firm action against organized crime".

Saturday's declaration states organized crime and corruption as the major obstacles for the Balkans. The region, which Chris Patten, the EU's Commissioner for External Affairs, described as "one of the missing pieces in our jigsaw Europe", is Europe's poorest area and is still suffering from years of ethnic war in former Yugoslavia.

Perspective, yes, exact dates, no

At the summit, EU leaders stated the importance of encouraging the Balkan countries to join the EU. Their future, they said, "is within the European Union".

Speaking on Saturday, the German chancellor emphasized the necessity of giving the Balkan states a perspective for membership. Europe's boundaries were defined a long time ago, Schröder said. "One cannot exclude ex-Yugoslavia and the Balkans from Europe".

However, Schröder refrained from naming an exact date for enlargement. The process of democratization and the convergence of economic structures with the EU must be completed before membership could be obtained, Schröder said.

Debate shifts outward

The shift to focusing on the European Union's near neighbors in the Balkans comes after Friday's intense debate on the new draft European constitution.

Greece, which currently holds the rotating presidency, has been keen to make the union focus on the Balkans – which lie between Greece and most of the EU.

Sicherheitszone Kosovo/Jugoslawien

EU leaders believe that integrating the Balkan states into the EU is the best way of stabilizing a region which is still suffering under the many years of ethnic strife in the 1990s and subsequent poverty, economic decline, crime and corruption.

"The process of European unification will not be complete until the Balkans have joined the EU", European Commission President Romano Prodi told a news conference.

Joining dates unclear

Despite Saturday's emphasis on EU-expansion to the Balkans, it is still unclear exactly when the Balkan states will be able to join.

Croatia and the new union of Serbia and Montenegro would like to join within the next five years.

Croatia, the most economically advanced of the five western Balkan states is said to have a reasonable chance: Along with Macedonia it is the only Balkan state to have negotiated a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU – the first major step towards full membership. However, Croatia has been criticized for its reluctance to extradite suspected war criminals to the Hague.

The future of Serbia and Montenegro is also uncertain – its two constituent parts have yet to outline a clear working relationship. In addition, the status of Kosovo, which is still legally a province of Serbia but de facto a United Nations protectorate remains unresolved. Kosovo wants independence from Belgrade but so far the international community has only supported autonomy for the province, fearing further fragmentation of the region.

However, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Saturday that Serbia and Kosovo had expressed readiness to begin its first direct talks by the end of July.

Aid bonus

The EU plans to smooth the path to further enlargement with an extra 200 million euros ($237 million) in aid for the five western Balkan states. This comes in addition to the 4.6 billion euros already committed by the EU for the 2000-2006 period.

Speaking on Saturday, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder said there was no need to fear further enlargement. "Of course it will be more complicated", he said when the EU expands from its 15 members, but also that this step only emphasized the necessity of EU constitutional reform.

The western-Balkans summit sees the end of a three day discussion marathon, during which EU leaders concentrated on the issues of immigration and agriculture and decided on further steps towards the implementation of a future constitution for the EU.

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