European Union leaders have assured their counterparts from five Balkan countries at a summit in northern Greece that they will one day be able to join the expanding bloc. They also pledged new aid to the region, to push economic and political reforms that will allow the Balkan states to meet EU membership criteria. EU says it is urgent for Balkan countries to crack down on rampant corruption and organized crime

The EU leaders made it clear that they have every intention of bringing the Balkan countries into the bloc, some day. Romano Prodi, the head of the European Commission, which runs the EU's day-to-day affairs, told reporters that the future of the Balkans lies within the Union.

"The process of unification in Europe is not complete, and won't be complete, until the Balkans become members of the European Union," he said.

But the EU has told the Balkan leaders that, to prepare for EU membership, the five countries need to become more democratic, improve the rule of law and bring about ethnic reconciliation. It also says Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro must accelerate market reforms, bolster human rights and combat organized crime and corruption.

There are signs that the five countries are trying to resolve problems left over from the decade of conflict that witnessed the breakup of Yugoslavia. EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana announced that the government in Belgrade will hold its first direct talks next month with ethnic Albanian officials in the internationally-run Serbian province of Kosovo.

"Belgrade and Pristina have clearly expressed their readiness to enter into a practical dialogue on matters of mutual interest, and that dialogue will begin before the end of the month of July," said Javier Solana.

But diplomats say the talks will not touch upon ethnic Albanians' demand for independence. They will, instead, deal with such issues as energy, transportation, missing persons and the return of refugees.

The EU pledged an additional $240 million in aid to the five Balkan states, on top of more than $7 billion it has already committed to the region. The new aid is aimed at developing sound economies and civil institutions. But Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who presided over the EU/Balkan summit, said that he told the Balkan leaders the money will be disbursed only if the EU sees progress toward reforms.

"I said, 'work; please move towards reform, and we will respond with more money', " he said.

Two Balkan nations, Bulgaria and Romania, are in line to join the EU by 2007. But of the five western Balkan countries, only Croatia - the most economically advanced - is given a chance of becoming a member before the end of the decade.