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World News

EU says supports Balkan integration despite doubts

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - European Union ministers gathered in Bosnia on Wednesday to show support for the Balkans, vowing that the Greek financial crisis and enlargement fatigue would not halt the region’s eventual EU integration.

Spain's Foreign Minister Angel Moratinos, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and Bosnia's Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj (L-R) pose for pictures before the start of the European Union-Western Balkans conference in Sarajevo June 2, 2010. REUTERS/Danilo Krstanovic

“A very good future for the whole region, a European future and a commitment of the international community to support all Western Balkans to join the EU, that is the main message today,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Of the nations that emerged from the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Slovenia has already joined the EU, Croatia is close to membership and Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have applied. To the south, Albania has also applied.

Bosnia, which remains an international protectorate divided along ethnic lines, and Kosovo, whose independence Serbia and some EU states do not recognise, are lagging behind.

“It is important that we came here to firmly say that despite the fact that you might hear different noises from the West European society countries, the door is open for you,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bidlt said.

LITTLE OF SUBSTANCE?

Although organisers billed the morning conference as the largest Balkan-focussed event in a decade bringing together EU and Balkan foreign ministers, many diplomats and local officials expected little change in its wake.

“There is no substance to any of it,” one senior Western diplomat told Reuters. “It is just a feel-good event.”

The problem, another envoy said, is that 15 years after the war ended, people in Bosnia are tired of waiting to enjoy the prosperity of eventual EU membership.

“People here don’t believe the EU. The EU has a credibility problem,” said the official, who did not want to be named. “What people are looking for is something tangible, something concrete.”

The EU last year extended to citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia the right to travel without visas to the Schengen are which includes most member states except Britain and Ireland, and last week Brussels proposed widening that benefit to Bosnia and Albania later this year.

Regional officials and diplomats say better ties among the former Yugoslav states in recent months following diplomatic efforts from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia can help the EU integration process.

Serbia and Bosnia have also reminded Europe of the 1990s wars and chaos in warning against any waning of EU support for the Balkans.

“We know from history that you have to have a peaceful Balkans in order to have a peaceful Europe,” Haris Silajdzic, chairman of Bosnia’s three-man presidency, told Reuters.

Activists from 470 civic organisations from the region urged the EU foreign ministers to use the Sarajevo meeting to give new impetus for EU accession and define clear membership conditions.

Valentin Inzko, the top international envoy in Bosnia, said in an interview that one possible date for a group of Balkans nations to enter the EU could be 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo four years earlier.

editing by Paul Taylor

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