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Croatia gets EU boost while Turkey told to do more

Croatia could wrap up entry talks with the European Union next year if it steps up preparations, but other would-be members including Turkey have a lot more to do, the European Commission said on Wednesday.

The annual enlargement report of the EU executive is the latest signal that while the EU may expand one more time to usher in Croatia after its historic eastward enlargement of 2004-2007, the jury is out on any further expansion. “It is not a blank cheque for Croatia. The ball is firmly in Croatia’s court,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

While the report gives no actual entry date, diplomats say Croatia, a former Yugoslav state of 4.4 million, could become the EU’s 28th member in 2011 if it concludes accession talks next year and the standard procedures are completed on time. “What matters is that EU membership is no longer beyond the horizon, but is something visible,” Prime Minister Ivo Sanader told a news conference in Zagreb. “I believe we shall become members before the next parliamentary election in Croatia, in 2010 or 2011.”

The Commission said Croatia first needed to step up its fight against organized crime and corruption after a wave of mafia-style violence, overhaul its subsidized shipyard and steel industries and improve management of EU funds. There is little appetite for further enlargement among EU member states, which have the final say, following the bloc’s costly expansion to take in 12, mostly ex-communist countries from central and eastern Europe. France and Germany say that before enlarging, the EU should revive its stalled Lisbon treaty, meant to prepare the bloc’s institutions for more members.

Ireland rejected the treaty in a referendum this year, although its prime minister is expected to present ideas in December on how his country might pass the charter nevertheless. The Commission’s report said other EU candidates -- Turkey, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo -- were making only limited progress on required reforms. “Their advance towards EU membership can be accelerated, provided they meet the necessary conditions,” Rehn said.

The Commission declared Turkey a functioning market economy, a crucial step for eventual EU membership, but it also said reforms had stalled due to a political crisis linked to a constitutional case against the governing party. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said EU membership was a strategic aim. “We are fully determined to implement the political and economic criteria that will allow our people to attain the highest standards in all fields,” it said in a statement. Turkey started EU entry talks in 2005 along with Croatia, but they stalled, partly over its refusal to normalize relations with EU member Cyprus.

The Commission said it might propose lifting the travel visa obligation on some Balkan countries next year. Serbia could get EU candidate status then if it increased reform and cooperated with the UN war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Macedonia -- embroiled in a row over its name with Greece -- has had the status since 2005, but has not begun membership talks. The Commission report did not give Macedonia the green light to start entry talks that it had wanted. (Reuters)