Brussels (Alliance News) - EU ministers were mulling Tuesday the way forward for countries seeking to join their bloc, with expectations high that Serbia will be allowed to proceed and Albania handed a delay.
Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iceland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are all candidates or potential candidates for EU accession.
Countries can only make progress in their membership bids if they deliver wide-ranging reforms, making the process a key tool for spurring democratic change.
Serbia has been rewarded for normalizing ties with its breakaway province Kosovo. EU leaders called last June for accession negotiations with Belgrade to be launched in January at the latest.
EU ministers for foreign and European affairs were considering Tuesday the negotiating framework for the Serbia talks. Those guidelines will then have to be confirmed by leaders at a summit in Brussels later this week.
"I hope that we will finally get the decision on starting the accession negotiations for Serbia. I think it's high time," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told journalists before meeting with colleagues from the EU's 27 other countries.
"I am very optimistic," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans added, after speaking a day earlier of "unprecedented" work done by Serbia to "come up with compromises."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been mediating between Serbia and Kosovo, said on Monday that she would recommend for Serbia's accession bid to be moved forward.
Belgrade had yielded to EU pressure for the talks with Pristina, after it became clear that they would be crucial for progress on its membership bid. Serbia does not recognize its neighbour as an independent state. Nor do all EU members.
The two sides have nevertheless managed to strike a landmark deal that is meant to remove obstacles to everyday life for their people.
Ashton said that "really impressive" progress has been made, while also acknowledging there are "final details around the justice system" still to be looked at.
Albania, meanwhile, has faced pressure about corruption and organized crime, with the EU repeatedly warning that more progress is needed.
The bloc's executive, the European Commission, has recommended that Albania should now be granted official status as a candidate, but several ministers indicated Tuesday that their countries might not be ready yet to take that step.
Enlargement decisions have to receive unanimous consent.
"There has been a lot of progress, but ... we need to have a longer track record before we grant the candidate status," Denmark's minister for European affairs, Nick Haekkerup, said, indicating that his position was in line with that of the Netherlands.
Among those supporting the step forward for Albania is fellow Balkan nation Croatia, which joined the EU this year. Its foreign minister, Vesna Pusic, said that "a number of countries" have supported a letter calling for Albania to get candidate status.
"Albania has done everything that's necessary," Pusic said.
"You can always say that there are things that remain to be done in Albania, which is certainly true," Bildt added. "(But) the fact that they've done things better than expected in terms of elections, a new government starting to work, I think it's important to reward that."
The commission has also argued that Macedonia should be given a boost in its membership bid, but there has been little hope of progress there because of a long-standing dispute over the country's name with EU member Greece.
Ministers on Tuesday were also preparing the other topics that will feature at the leaders' summit on Thursday and Friday. The crisis in Ukraine is expected to be on the agenda, along with defence, migration and economic reforms.
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