Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 16:27 UK

Macedonia 'is ready for EU talks'

Man with EU and Macedonian flags in Skopje, 14/10/09
There were spontaneous celebrations on the streets of Skopje

The European Union should open talks aimed at welcoming Macedonia as a member, the European Commission says.

The former Yugoslav republic had made "convincing progress" in areas like police reform, corruption and human rights, the Commission said.

In its annual report on the progress of aspiring members, the Commission also said Croatia should complete entry talks next year.

But it said Turkey and other Balkan states were making uneven progress.

Serbia, Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo are all hoping to be put formally on the path to EU membership.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Macedonia "has made convincing progress and substantially addressed reform priorities", and that formal membership talks should begin.

We are aware of the importance of this report and Macedonia will actively and constructively negotiate and seek solution with Greece under the United Nations auspices
Nikola Gruevski
Macedonian PM

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called it a "historic day for the citizens of Macedonia".

The announcement sparked celebrations on the streets of Skopje, where people honked car horns and waved Macedonian and EU flags.

A significant obstacle to Macedonia's membership remains a dispute with Greece over the country's name. Greece says it implies a claim on the Greek province of the same name, and has already blocked Macedonia's accession to Nato on that basis.

Mr Rehn said he viewed the start of negotiations "as a very strong encouragement to settle the name issue and thus remove this from the agenda, and I trust that the government in Skopje gets this message as well".

Mr Gruevski said he did.

If Croatia "meets all outstanding benchmarks in time, [its] accession negotiations could be concluded next year," the Commission's report said.

It gave no date when Croatia might join the 27-member bloc, but 2011 or 2012 are thought most likely.

Bosnia straggling

Turkey started its membership talks at the same time as Croatia - four years ago - but its progress has been much slower.

The Commission said it wanted to see political and economic reforms stepped up, as well as better rights for minorities, women and trade unions, and relations with Cyprus normalised.

Other aspirants were criticised for corruption and weak administration, and the report made clear that it would be many years before they were in a position to join.

Serbia had a strong administration and was best able to push ahead with reforms, it said.

Bosnia-Hercegovina is some way behind, plagued by its "unstable political climate" and continuing ethnic divisions, Mr Rehn said.

Kosovo - still not recognised as independent by all EU countries - was offered the encouragement of visa-free travel for its citizens to EU countries.

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