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Europe

Ministers give positive signals to Balkan countries hoping to join EU

European Union ministers meeting in Sarajevo have indicated their willingness to move forward on plans to accept Balkan nations in the EU, reassuring countries that economic problems would not halt integration.

EU flag with face of woman behind

Many Balkan states are concerned the EU suffers expansion fatigue

Countries from the former Yugoslavia have been given some reassurance that the "door is open" to the integration of Balkan nations into the European Union.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was among the European leaders in Sarajevo lending his support to some Balkan nations bidding to join the EU.

"There are a number of countries where enthusiasm for enlargement is less than 100 percent these days. Then it is important that we come here to reaffirm and say ... the door is open," Bildt said.

Of the nations that emerged from the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Slovenia has already joined the EU, Croatia is close to membership and Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have applied. To the south, Albania has also applied.

Bosnia, which remains an international protectorate divided along ethnic lines, and Kosovo, whose independence Serbia and some EU states do not recognise, are lagging behind.

Balkans welcome

In light of the ongoing debt crisis in Europe, there was some concern in the Balkans that progress would be bogged down on absorbing new nations into the block.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton with Bosnia (R) and Spain (L) foreign ministers at the meeting

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton with Bosnia (R) and Spain (L) foreign ministers at the meeting

But Bildt added that he expected "strong reaffirmation by the EU" encouraging the Balkan nations to push on with their efforts to join the EU.

Spain, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency and organized the meeting, added that Balkan countries were welcome in the EU

"A very good future for the whole region, a European future, and a commitment of the international community to support all Western Balkans to join the EU, that is the main message today," said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

However, many Balkan states will be hoping more than rhetoric comes out of the meeting.

This could come in the form of extending the right to travel without visas in the EU's Schengen zone to Bosnia and Albania, an idea put forth in Brussels last week.

This right has already been given to Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Conference downgraded

The Sarajevo conference was originally planned as a summit, but reconfigured as informal talks because of the current row between Serbia and its former province Kosovo.

Belgrade refuses to acknowledge Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Serbian officials insist they will not formally share any table with their Kosovo counterparts.

Because the conference has revised its format, it will now not issue any formal declaration at the end of proceedings.

mz/cb/dpa/Reuters/AFP
Editor: Rob Turner

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