Balkan Leaders Pledge Economic Cooperation, Support for EU Path

Leaders of eight Balkan nations that emerged from the violent breakup of Yugoslavia pledged closer ties and support for future European Union membership bids in a meeting co-chaired by French President Francois Hollande.

This is the second time that the heads of former Yugoslav republics and Albania have met after Croatia became the 28th member of the EU on July 1, as the bloc’s leaders press Balkan nations to make the region more secure and prosperous.

“We cannot leave behind a chunk of Europe, such as the western Balkans, which has experienced tragic history, if we want a Europe of peace and conciliation” Hollande told reporters today in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia, which has been an EU member since 2004. The venue is an Alpine retreat developed by former Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito.

The EU deepened its presence in the Balkan peninsula this month by admitting Croatia as the second former Yugoslav republic to join the world’s largest trading bloc. Waiting in the wings are Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia, which must still overhaul judicial and economic systems and create a lasting peace in a region devastated by war in the 1990s.

The focus is now on Serbia, the largest of the former Yugoslav states, and its relations with its former province, Kosovo. Bosnia-Herzegovina, sandwiched between Croatia and Serbia, also remains under international supervision.

Serbian Bid

Serbia is expected to start EU entry talks by 2014 as long as it continues to show progress in fixing ties with Kosovo, which is recognized as an independent state by more than 100 countries, including 23 EU nations and the U.S. Stefan Fule, the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner, told Serbian lawmakers July 18 that talks will focus first on the judiciary and human rights. Ultra-nationalists on both sides have condemned the process.

As the former Yugoslavia fell apart in the continent’s bloodiest fighting since World War II, the development of roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure was hampered, putting the region behind other post-communist nations that joined the EU in 2004, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

The western Balkans, where the unemployment rate averages 22.8 percent, remains heavily reliant on the euro area for investment and trade, whose own recession is preventing acceleration in the economic recovery of the Balkans, the World Bank said June 18. Growth should be driven by energy, agriculture and exports, it said.

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