EU Seeks to Quell Iceland Diplomatic Row

The EU has tried to ward off any potential ill feeling in the Balkans after quickly accepting Iceland's accession bid.

EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (27 July) restated their "full support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans" and promised to shortly recognise Albania's application.

"I hope we will be able in the next few months, and stretching beyond the Swedish presidency, to give a new impetus to the integration process in the Western Balkans," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said.

"We must not lose sight of the need to further stabilise and integrate South East Europe," enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn added.

The remarks came after the EU formally accepted Iceland's request to join the bloc just three days after it was made. Balkan nations such as Montenegro have in the past had to wait up to four months for the green light.

Mr Rehn noted that he was in Podgorice last Thursday promoting EU visa free travel on the same day that Iceland handed over its EU bid in Stockholm.

Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia are set to enjoy visa-free entry into the EU from 1 January 2010.

"I do not happen to have a Montenegrean one, but this is the key to visa free travel in the EU [passport-free] Schengen area," the commissioner said, holding up a Serbian biometric passport at Monday's press event.

EU-Balkan relations are mired in bilateral problems on top of a negative political climate toward enlargement.

Greek foreign minister Dora Bakoyanni on Monday said Greece would veto starting accession talks with Macedonia unless the country changed its name, which is also the name of a Greek province.

Slovenia on Friday also blocked the opening of another negotiating chapter in Croatia talks amid an ongoing dispute over maritime borders.

'By the book'Mr Rehn said that Iceland's EU application will be treated "by the book" but explained that it already observes two-thirds of EU laws as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), a 1994 trade pact.

"It took us a longer time to negotiate membership in the EEA than from that point to negotiate membership in the EU," Sweden's Mr. Bildt pointed out.

Iceland's EU entry will not be a walk in the park, however.

Dutch EU ambassador Tom de Bruijn on Monday ruffled feathers by saying Iceland must repay €1.3 billion of debts caused by a 2008 bank collapse before its EU bid goes ahead.

"The Brits [which are owed €2.6 billion] are no longer making this a condition. But the Dutch want their money back," an EU diplomat said.