While reassuring the Western Balkan countries about their European prospects, EU foreign ministers urged them Saturday to pursue further reforms aimed at meeting the Union's membership criteria.
(Irish Examiner - 13/03/06; FT, AFP, FENA - 12/03/06; Austrian EU Presidency, AFP, BBC, DPA, EUobserver, HINA, Sofia News Agency, B92, DW - 11/03/06)
Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic arrives for the second day of the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Salzburg.
EU foreign ministers reassured the Western Balkan countries Saturday (11 March) of their prospects for joining the Union, while stressing the need for further efforts.
"The EU confirms that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the EU," said a statement adopted at the end of a two-day informal meeting in Salzburg, chaired by Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik. Austria currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
"European unification is incomplete without the Balkans," Plassnik said at a press conference. "The countries of the region are potential accession candidates. They have a clear European perspective."
The Salzburg meeting was attended also by the foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Romania, which are scheduled to join the Union on 1 January 2007, as well as by those of EU candidates Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey, and of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Serbia-Montenegro. Other participants in the talks included EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.
Noting that a debate about the 25-nation bloc's enlargement strategy is due in 2006, the foreign ministers also stressed that the EU's "absorption capacity has to be taken into account" in any future enlargement.
"The participants agreed that each country's progress towards the EU continues to depend on individual merits in meeting the conditions and requirements set forth in the Copenhagen criteria and in the Stabilisation and Association Process, including full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia," the statement said.
Praising the Western Balkan countries for their progress in the areas of stability, democracy and economic recovery, the statement noted the significant steps all have made on their EU integration path over the past year.
The last few months have seen the launching of Croatia's EU membership talks and Macedonia's official recognition as an EU candidate. Serbia-Montenegro and BiH began talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the Union, while Albania completed its talks earlier this year.
The Western Balkan countries "must now increasingly focus on adopting and implementing European standards and in fostering conditions for sustainable stability and prosperity throughout the region," the statement said.
Expressing the participants' full support for UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's efforts, it urged the parties involved in the talks on Kosovo's future to seek a negotiated and mutually acceptable settlement. It also stressed the importance of continued implementation of the standards the international community has laid down for Kosovo.
Welcoming the European Commission's recently announced strategy for the Western Balkans, the ministers expressed the bloc's intention to move forward with its implementation.
"The EU will continue assisting the Western Balkan countries through practical measures to make the European perspective more tangible," their statement said.