Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Austria to drive EU Balkan expansion -Kosovo envoy

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Austria will devote its presidency of the European Union from Jan. 1 to cementing the bloc's commitment to membership for all countries of the former Yugoslavia, a U.N. Kosovo envoy said on Wednesday.

Albert Rohan, former secretary-general of Austria's Foreign Ministry, said Vienna intended to "reaffirm" the EU's recently strained commitment to embrace the western Balkans, as agreed at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003.

Split by a dispute over the EU budget and rejection of its new constitution, some EU members have gone cold on the idea of further enlargement to embrace the Balkans.

France on Monday proposed postponing a decision to give the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia "candidate status", saying the 25-nation bloc needed first to finance its existing enlargement and hold a wider debate on its future.

Concerned the Balkans could suffer the fallout from a deeper EU crisis, advocates of expansion say the prospect of EU membership remains the best hope of stabilising a region torn apart by war in the 1990s and where the prospect of fresh ethnic conflict remains real.

"It is Europe's task to help stabilise the Balkan region," Rohan, the deputy U.N. envoy negotiating the future of Kosovo, told a news conference in the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

"We have an enormous chance to do it because we have this instrument which is called the European perspective, the perspective of membership," he said.

ONE EU ROOF

Western capitals hope the promise of a joint future under one EU roof will help ease a decision due next year on the future of Serbia's U.N.-run province of Kosovo, where Western diplomats say the ethnic Albanian majority will likely win independence in spite of Serbian opposition.

Rohan, deputy to Finland's Martti Ahtisaari in U.N.-led negotiations just beginning on Kosovo's future, said Austria planned to use its presidency to include the region in EU deliberations by inviting Balkan ministers to take part in informal council discussions in Brussels.

"It is known that the EU is in crisis and this moment is not very conducive for thinking about future enlargement," he said. "But the EU has always had ups and downs and I would consider this hopefully a temporary down."

Slovenia became the first former Yugoslav republic to join the EU in 2004. Croatia is next in line, probably in 2010. Estimates suggested Macedonia could join by 2012, followed by Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia in 2015.

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