BRUSSELS, Dec 17 (AFP) -
One-time Balkan tinderbox Macedonia moved a step closer Saturday to realising its dream of European Union membership when the bloc's leaders gave their blessing for it to start membership talks.
It became the second former Yugoslav republic, after Croatia, to get a green light this year to open negotiations with Brussels, eventually to join the 25-nation bloc which already includes Slovenia.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose nation holds the EU presidency, confirmed the decision on Macedonia, unlocked by an agreement on an EU budget for 2007-13 which had dominated a gruelling two-day summit in Brussels.
He said he hoped the EU's blessing "emphasises that again, in the future, we hope to see a Europe reunited in all its aspects. Obviously, Macedonia is an important part of that vision," he told reporters.
No date was set for a start of the membership talks.
Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski welcomed the decision, describing the move as recognition for recent reforms.
"This is a big day for us, we received recognition for everything we have done in the recent past," he told the state-owned Mia news agency.
"Macedonia finally leaves the Balkan road paved with cobblestones and joins a highway that leads to Europe," said Buckovski, whose government was to meet in extraordinary session to define an "action plan" of further steps.
A celebration was scheduled Saturday evening in Skopje's main square, with performances by some of the country's most popular music stars.
Macedonia had been praised for its concerted effort to implement reforms since the end in 2001 of an uprising by its ethnic Albanian minority which threatened to spiral into all-out civil war.
The European Commission, which negotiates with candidates on behalf of the Union, recommended a month ago that Macedonia be accepted as a candidate but it declined to predict when membership talks would start.
In a statement, enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said the decision was good news, not just for Macedonia, but for the rest of the volatile Balkans.
"This decision is also the right political signal to send to the region of the western Balkans as a whole: the EU has given a clear European perspective to these countries, provided they fulfil the conditions," Rehn said.
"It proves the credibility of our policy for the western Balkans and that the EU respects its commitments."
Many in Europe see the perspective of EU membership as paramount to encouraging democratic reform and avoiding future conflict in the region.
Landlocked between Kosovo, Bulgaria and Greece, tiny Macedonia found itself on the edge of the Balkan wars which brought the demise of former communist Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In their summit conclusions, the EU leaders said they welcomed the "significant progress" made by Macedonia to meet the bloc's prerequisites -- notably democratic politics and free-market economics.
They underlined that Macedonia must continue to consolidate its political and economic system to bring them up to European norms.
But they stressed that a date for talks and further steps "will have to be considered in the light of the debate on the enlargement strategy", which the Union hopes to undertake next year.
Just five days earlier, EU foreign ministers had failed to reach a consensus on Skopje's candidacy, amid opposition from France apparently linked to the dispute over the bloc's budget.
France believed that enlargement issues had to be set aside until the 2007-2013 spending package was agreed, because if the Union could not agree on its finances with 25 members things would be worse with more.