06/22/2003 | Englishman
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EU Reaches Out to Balkans
With Aid, Membership Vow

Associated Press

PORTO CARRAS, Greece -- European Union leaders promised Saturday to provide the funds and political will to eventually include the western Balkans in their expanding bloc, ending a summit where they agreed to start final negotiations on the EU's first constitution.

They also moved to soothe their bruised relationship with the U.S., endorsing a strategy paper that recognizes the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance in the face of new global security threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

In a separate statement, the 15 EU members and 10 states that will join next year urged Iran and North Korea to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors to dispel fears that they are developing nuclear weapons.

In a meeting with the leaders of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia-Montenegro, the 15 EU leaders granted $249 million in assistance and expressed their intention to one day bring the countries into the EU.

"Today has shown that this process is irreversible. We want to welcome the Balkans to the European house," European Commission President Romano Prodi said.

EU leaders used the promise of future EU membership to push two of the region's most recalcitrant members to the negotiating table, announcing that Serbs and Kosovo Albanians will begin talks next month to normalize relations.

The talks won't touch on Kosovo Albanian demands for independence but will deal with such issues as energy, transportation, missing persons and the return of refugees.

"What is driving us to the table is our genuine wish to speed up the pace to European integration," Serbian Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said.

The summit, aimed at forging greater unity within the EU as it prepares to accept 10 new members, inevitably revisited the bloody Balkan wars, which exploded as Yugoslavia began crumbling in the 1990s. EU officials have said European unification won't be complete without the Balkans.

"The goal on behalf of the EU was to give the message to the western Balkans that our goal is for them to join when they meet the criteria," said Greek Premier Costas Simitis, the summit's host.

To meet standards for eventual membership, the Balkan side pledged "full and unequivocal cooperation" in bringing war crimes suspects to the Yugoslav war tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

The joint statement called organized crime and corruption, which flourished since the breakdown of communist control, "a real obstacle to democratic stability."

The new aid comes on top of $5.5 billion for the 2000-2006 period and is aimed at encouraging the development of a sound economy and civil institutions.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said his country, which assumes the rotating EU presidency on July 1, will stage more high-level gathering, including one with interior ministers in order to find ways to fight organized crime.

"It's not conceivable to have an enclave of western Balkan countries in Europe," he said. "Today we have given them a message of trust: "We consider you part of a work in progress.'"

In Thessaloniki, about 60 miles northwest of the summit site, hundreds of rioters clashed with police in street battles during mostly peaceful marches to protest U.S. policies and other issues. Mobs burned some stores and looted a McDonald's restaurant.

The decisions Saturday follow two days of talks during which the 15 EU leaders endorsed a draft constitution and pledged to complete negotiations by year's end and overcome differences over the future shape of the EU.

The draft, which must be approved by the legislatures of all member states and the European Parliament, calls for an EU president, a foreign minister, a more powerful European Commission and more majority voting to simplify decision making.

The proposed constitution was written by a European Convention made up of 105 representatives from EU governments, institutions and legislatures.

Italy and three other countries said they will reopen a contentious debate on whether God should be mentioned in the constitution.

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