ECONOMY

West Balkans’ EU prospects

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The countries of the Western Balkans have a calling to join the European Union eventually, incoming EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in written answers to questions on his priorities. «The Enlargement portfolio will be expanded to include responsibility for the Western Balkans,» he wrote. He said the «countries of the Western Balkans have a vocation to become members of the EU regardless of the time it would take to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria,» referring to the political conditions for membership. Countries in the Western Balkans include Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania. Former Yugoslav republic Slovenia is already in the bloc, while Croatia has been accepted as a candidate to open entry talks next year. The Finnish commissioner said the EU could take in all these countries, but he noted the importance of ensuring the bloc’s capacity to absorb new members while maintaining the momentum of European integration. Rehn takes over as enlargement commissioner on November 1, shortly after the publication of an October 6 Commission report on whether Turkey is ready to start EU accession talks. He was careful not to offer an opinion on Turkey, saying only that past Commission reports had been praised for their fairness and the EU executive «had clearly shown the required objectiveness… I want to continue to do so.» Romania and Bulgaria are due to join the bloc in January 2007 and Rehn said the accession process with both countries was well advanced. «The Commission will make every effort to help fulfil the mandate set up by the European Council (of EU leaders), namely the ‘objective to welcome the two countries as members of the Union in January 2007, if they are ready,’» he wrote. He added that the planned opening of negotiations with Croatia, set for early next year, «should have no influence on the future accession to the EU of Romania and Bulgaria.»