Ahead of a trip to Zagreb for talks with the Croatian government, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn gave his strongest hint yet that Croatia could wrap up its membership talks with the EU before the year is out.
"My intention is to send encouraging messages to Croatia as regards its EU accession negotiations because it can make this year, 2008, a decisive year -- or the decisive year -- on the conditions that the benchmarks [set by the EU] are met shortly by Croatia," Rehn said in Brussels.
The EU wants Croatia to speed up judicial and administrative reforms, rein in corruption, restructure its shipbuilding industry, and rescind its claim to a "fishing and ecological" zone in the Adriatic, which irks neighbors Italy and Slovenia, both EU member states.
Croatia is in a tight race to finalize its talks with the EU before the European Parliament elections in June 2009, so as to be able to join the bloc by 2011.
The EU's relations with Serbia, on the other hand, have nose-dived since most of the bloc's member states recognized Kosovo's independence, which it proclaimed on February 17.
Officials in Brussels have dropped dark hints about Serbia's potential to ruin much of the EU's good work in the Balkans, which the bloc subsidizes to the tune of 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) a year -- the highest levels of per capita EU aid anywhere.
Rehn stressed on March 5 that Serbia is key to stability in the region, and called upon Belgrade to heed its people's wish to build closer ties with the EU. "I'm fully aware that a great majority of Serbian people consistently support EU membership," he said. "It should be a realistic expectation that the Serbian government listens to this silent majority."
However, Rehn went on to ruefully note that "certain recent statements from Belgrade seem to rule [this] out."
He said the Serbian government must now make its intentions clear. As things stand, this could lead to a formal severing of ties between the two sides, as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has called on all political parties in Serbia to reject formal ties with the EU, unless it reverses its decision to work with an independent Pristina.
Rehn said the "EU is on standby" for developing closer relations with Serbia, but noted "it takes two" to conduct consultations that could lead to formal accession talks.
Reflecting deep-seated divisions among the EU's own member states over Kosovo, Rehn confined himself to a single sentence in reference to the erstwhile Serbian province, saying the EU remains committed to working toward an eventual conclusion to its status. A small but vocal minority of EU member states, led by Spain and Cyprus, does not recognize Kosovo for fear of setting a precedent for domestic separatists.
The EU is worried that Serbian resentment in the region could prompt Bosnia's Serbs to declare independence in their turn. Rehn did not address this concern directly, but said the EU remains prepared to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia-Herzegovina as soon as April.
Rehn said the region's stragglers, Albania and Montenegro, still need to "convince" the EU they are able to implement their own SAAs.
Regarding Macedonia, Rehn said the country is close to being able to "demonstrate" to the EU it is ready to launch accession talks, possibly already this year.
Rehn said the country needs to speed up reforms of the judiciary and public administration, and properly implement police reform and anticorruption laws. He warned though, that Skopje may find its progress towards EU membership blocked by Greece, which does not accept the country's right to call itself Macedonia.