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Door to Balkans still open despite ‘enlargement fatigue’ 31 mai 2006

Posted by Acturca in EU / UE, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est.

Financial Times (London, England), May 27, 2006 Saturday

By George Parker, Vienna

New democracies in the war-scarred Balkans will be told this weekend that the door remains open to them to join the European Union in spite of « enlargement fatigue » in the 25-member bloc. Ursula Plassnik, Austrian foreign minister and host of a « future of Europe » conference near Vienna, told the FT the union would not turn its back on the region.

Ms Plassnik said: « It’s extremely important politically to provide a stable political environment and that includes making clear the intentions of the European Union. We should not call into question the commitments we have given. »

The Austrian presidency of the EU hopes to restate the « perspective of membership » to the Balkan countries at a summit in Brussels next month.

Ms Plassnik believes the timing is important after the emergence this week of an independent Montenegro and the prospect that Kosovo could break away from Serbia in the autumn.

While Austria is sceptical about Turkish EU membership, the Balkans are on Vienna’s doorstep. « We know membership for these countries is not for tomorrow but the perspective of membership is an essential motor for reform in the region, » she says.

Serbia (and Kosovo), Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania all have the prospect of eventual EU membership, while Croatia has started membership talks.

Enlargement will be high on the agenda of the two-day « future of Europe » meeting starting today, at which EU foreign ministers will meet at Klosterneuburg abbey. Ms Plassnik says ministers will not try to define the future boundaries of the club but will discuss its capacity to absorb new members.

Some EU diplomats see the discussion of Europe’s « absorption capacity » as code for keeping out Turkey, whose population of more than 80m dwarfs the combined 25m of the countries in the western Balkans.

But Ms Plassnik says: « It’s a bit misleading to emphasise absorption capacity as a brake or tool to slow down or stop accession. People know exactly what we mean: we have to be institutionally and financially prepared. »

Preparing the EU for more members means returning to the corpse of the union’s constitutional treaty, which aimed to streamline the operations of an enlarged union. Ms Plassnik admits that after a year-long « period of reflection » following the French and Dutch rejection of the treaty, the EU is still no clearer about whether to salvage parts of the text.

« Now is not the moment to come to a definite decision, » she says. The Austrians are likely to propose that future six-month presidencies – Finland, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia – try to answer the question.

In the meantime she said the union should focus on policy delivery in areas such as energy and research, while making the club work better under its existing rules, particularly in areas such as foreign affairs and the fight against cross-border crime.

She said ministers would also discuss plans for an EU emergency response force to deal with disasters but said it would not duplicate member states’ efforts. With the constitution on hold and a final decision on Romanian and Bulgarian accession to the EU deferred until the autumn, some diplomats say the Austrian presidency will end next month with a whimper. Ms Plassnik bristles at the suggestion. « I’m not going to let the Austrian presidency be criticised for a lack of activity. We have been working hard. » Austria has finalised the EU’s seven-year budget and is close to a deal on a law to liberalise Europe’s market in services.


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