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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 15:28 GMT
EU to disappoint Balkan hopefuls
By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Brussels

A Kosovan boy astride a horse
The Kosovo problem is an obstacle to Serbia's hopes of joining
The European Commission will recommend next week that Western Balkans countries postpone any moves towards joining the European Union.

Last year Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Albania all edged closer towards joining the EU.

But a draft Commission report to be published next week says the countries cannot expect to join the EU in the short term, despite some progress.

The report says they are likely to join only in the medium to long term.

The countries are now marking time - not only because reforms have slowed down at home, but also because people in Western Europe want enlargement to pause.

Reforms needed

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was hoping to start membership talks, but the European Commission is saying: "Not yet."

The draft report seen by the BBC urges Skopje to speed up political reforms, fight corruption and improve relations with ethnic Albanians if it wants to move ahead with its EU bid.

The report praises Serbia's new constitution and the country's economic stability. But it offers no prospect for the early resumption of talks on an association agreement unless Belgrade helps catch Gen Ratko Mladic, suspected of masterminding some of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war a decade ago.

Leaders from Balkan nations at a regional summit
Balkan leaders will be told to delay EU membership talks

Serbia is also urged to take a constructive approach to Kosovo, where the majority ethnic Albanians are expected to gain limited independence in the next few months.

The report describes the question of Kosovo's status, relations with Serbia and Bosnia's future as the major challenges for the year ahead.

But it points out that accession for the countries of the region is many years away and calls for the EU to refrain from setting any dates for future new members.

It appears unlikely that a large group of countries will join at the same time, the European Commission says. Future accessions are likely to occur in the medium to long term.

When they meet in December, EU leaders are expected to back those conclusions.

But some, like the French and the Austrians, will be frustrated that the Commission has stopped short of setting the bloc's ultimate borders.

The EU is defined by its values, the draft report says, rather than by fixed geographical limits.

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