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Balkan Leaders Welcome EU Pledge to Consider Membership Bid - 2003-06-22

The European Union at its semi-annual leaders meeting Saturday in Greece expressed a commitment to consider eventual membership for five countries they have designated as the western Balkans: Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. The Balkan countries got pretty much what they hoped for from the EU.

The Bosnian foreign minister was by far the most upbeat. He declared that Europe has sent a clear message that the western Balkans will become members EU.

But other Balkan leaders attending the meeting were more circumspect. Croatian president Stipe Mesic said EU membership is now clearly up to the Balkan countries themselves. Before they can join, they have to fulfill very detailed and comprehensive membership requirements.

The EU next May will take in 10 new members, all but two of them from central and eastern Europe. Bulgaria and Romania have been given target membership dates of 2007. While some of the western Balkan countries have themselves set 2007 as a target, few analysts think that is likely.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic came back from Greece in a sober mood. He said those who expected miracles at Thessaloniki were expecting too much. The message, he said, was clear: the speed of accession is up to individual governments and the membership conditions are rigorous. Mr. Zivkovic did express satisfaction that Belgrade will soon hold direct negotiations with the ethnic Albanian leadership in Kosovo, the disputed southern Serbian province that is under United Nations control. Belgrade wants the talks to focus on security and the return of Serbian refugees to Kosovo.

European Union leaders at the meeting made clear that to be EU members the western Balkan countries must first establish genuine rule of law, overcome endemic corruption and fight organized crime. Albanian president Alfred Mosiu said in Greece that fighting illegal trafficking in people and drugs must be the region's top priority. He said winning these battles requires cross border cooperation, of the kind the EU is insisting upon.