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EU Official Says Western Balkans Lag Behind on Rule of Law

The European Union official responsible for the Western Balkans says that region is not yet fully committed to implementing the pro-democracy and pro-market policies required for EU membership.

Reinhard Priebe told a Washington conference that the door to European Union membership remains open. The 25-nation EU last month said that Bulgaria and Romania can become members on January 1. This means that in southeastern Europe Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (including Kosovo) are on the outside, still awaiting membership. Priebe said he hopes Croatia, which is furthest along in the accession process, can join by the end of the decade. He appealed to that country's neighbor, Serbia, to move faster in meeting membership requirements.

"It is not normal that Serbia happens to be practically at the end of the line in the process as compared to the other countries," he said. "That is totally conflicting with its administrative and economic potential."

The EU has suspended pre-accession talks with Serbia because Belgrade has failed to hand over to the Hague war crimes tribunal an indicted Bosnian Serb general believed to be hiding in Serbia.

Priebe says the entire western Balkans region has considerable work to do to meet membership criteria. He says governments are not yet fully committed to implementing democratic standards. The foremost problem, he says, is rule of law.

"If you ask a foreign investor or a potential foreign investor what the problems are in these countries they say, well, the judiciary is not functioning," he said. "There is a high degree of corruption. There is legal uncertainty because the legislation is changing too often."

The economic conference sponsored by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies heard experts outline the huge investment needs of the Balkans. It was generally agreed that the region's weak electricity grid must be strengthened and that the energy sector requires over $15 billion. Transport infrastructure alone needs nearly $20 billion to repair the effects of war and neglect. Rail traffic in the Balkans (passenger and freight) remains 50 percent below the levels of 1989.