Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos said his country's EU presidency would do its utmost to achieve progress in the process of integrating the Western Balkans into the European Union.
"2010 is going to be a key year for all the Western Balkans," said Moratinos after meeting in Brussels with his Serbian counterpart Vuk Jeremic on Tuesday. "I can guarantee on behalf of the Spanish presidency that we will do everything that is possible to advance in this direction."
The meeting was the first political dialog at ministerial level since the Serbian government formally applied for EU membership in December 2009.
"We have discussed the constructive role Serbia can play in the Western Balkans and how we can work together in a practical way with regards to Kosovo," Moratinos told a news conference. The self-declared independence of Kosovo, a former region of Serbia, remains controversial.
The EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, who also took part in the meeting, said that the European Commission was prepared to assess Serbia's ability to fulfill the conditions for membership. This is a necessary step before accession negotiations can begin.
"We are just holding consultations with all member states and we hope it will happen," Moratinos said. "The sooner, the better." An early review would boost Serbia's hopes of receiving approval to start the negotiations quickly, after long delays due to EU concern over Serbia's failure to arrest wanted war criminals.
Cooperation with Tribunal
Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic said that joining the EU remained his government's strategic priority.
"Membership in the EU is a significant priority for us and we hope that this process will make progress as quickly as possible," Jeremic said. He reiterated Serbia's firm commitment to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, told the European Parliament during a hearing on Tuesday that he was satisfied with the cooperation. But Serbia needed to show more progress in catching Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic and former Serbian Croat leader Goran Hadzic. He said he believed they were hiding in Serbia.
"The arrest of fugitives is the highest priority," Brammertz said.
Their capture is seen as a key precondition for Serbia's progress toward joining the EU. Of the former Yugoslav republics, only Slovenia is an EU member. Croatia hopes to conclude its entry talks this year and join the EU in 2012.
Stabilizing the region
Moratinos said further that the Spanish presidency would seek to conclude accession negotiations with Croatia and resolve the issue of Macedonia, which is in a dispute with Greece over its name. In addition, it would deal with the integration prospects of other countries in the region such as Albania and Montenegro.
He said it aimed to work on stabilizing the region, with particular emphasis on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"We are moving forward towards a high degree of pacification and stabilization of the whole region, which is very positive for the Western Balkans and for all neighboring countries," Moratinos said. He said enormous progress had been made in recent years.
Reinforcing the EU's commitment in the Balkans
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Greece and Austria have drawn up a blueprint for EU action in the Balkans for 2010. In a letter obtained by the German press agency dpa, the ministers said the EU in 2010 should complete accession negotiations with Croatia, start talks with Macedonia, reinforce its role in Bosnia, abolish visas for Albanian and Bosnian citizens and advance Serbia's bid to join the bloc.
The letter was sent to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on January 21 and circulated in Brussels on January 25 during a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
"This is the right moment to renew at high level the EU's commitment to the region and to set out the course ahead in concrete terms," Dimistris Droutsas of Greece and Michael Spindelegger of Austria said in the letter.
The two ministers also called for stronger ties with other EU candidates, such as Albania and Montenegro, and for "concrete progress through the EU's engagement in Kosovo."
"Progress in the Balkans is not yet self-sustaining," Droutsas and Spindelegger said. "Moreover, in economically difficult times, many doubts are voiced regarding the European perspective of the Western Balkans."
The two ministers said their agenda could form the basis of discussions at the high-level meeting planned between EU and Balkan leaders at the end of May in Sarajevo.
Editor: Rob Turner