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Albania/Macedonia: EU To Develop Ties To Guard Against Instability

Prague, 22 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is moving to develop special relationships with Albania and Macedonia to help support those countries against the instability generated by the Kosovo crisis.

A senior European Union official in Brussels told RFE/RL that proposals should be formalized by next month, with the prospect -- for Albania at least -- of adoption by the EU by late summer.

His comments follow pleas for swift EU support for those two countries in the face of acute stresses caused by the inflow of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees. Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said this week (April 19) that Tirana will request a formal association agreement with Brussels as a step towards full EU membership. Milo said normal criteria should not be applied, and a faster route should be found to integrate Albania into Europe. Officials from Macedonia have expressed similar sentiments.

Brussels however, has its own ideas on the issue, and one of its considerations is that the existing list of 10 candidate members from Central and East Europe should not be upset by hasty preferential treatment for "newcomer" countries like Albania and Macedonia. The 10 candidates (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia) are now undergoing difficult negotiations or a detailed screening process. Some -- notably Bulgaria -- have already expressed impatience at the slow rate of progress towards membership.

Concerning Albania, the senior EU official, Dirk Buda, said that forging an association agreement with Albania now would do more harm than good, because its economy and institutions would be unable to cope. Buda is a member of the EU Directorate-general which deals with Relations with Central and East Europe. He said a formal association agreement, like foreign minister Milo wants, is a complicated document and must be ratified by all EU member states. It imposes rights and obligations on both sides, including economic ones:

"Albania is basically not ready for a kind of association with the union, this would for instance mean the prospect of free trade, the reduction of customs duties, and [the Albanians] are really weak, so it is not easy to follow the same path we took for the other countries of Central and East Europe."

Buda says the EU already has a comprehensive aid package for Albania in place since 1997, and has increased that further in light of the Kosovo crisis. He says the underdeveloped infrastructure of the country can hardly absorb more aid. Nevertheless, he says the EU is working on new ways to assist:

"What he have in the pipeline for the time being is a so-called autonomous measure, meaning that we are preparing a council regulation which would be adopted and would grant Albania trade preference for instance. The idea for the time being is to upgrade the trade regime."

Buda says that the existing EU-Albania cooperation agreement is sparse in its trade sections, and Albania does not receive the preferential economic treatment accorded Croatia and Bosnia, whose products receive almost duty-free entry into the EU. The envisaged regulation would grant similar trade preferences to Albania, and would permit duty free access to the entire EU market for Albanian industrial products and textiles. The Albanian textile sector is considered to have reasonable prospects within the EU.

The trade regulation in question should be prepared by May, for subsequent adoption by the EU, and it could be ready for implementation by August.

Turning to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Buda sees it as being in a much stronger position than Albania to cope with some type of association with the EU:

"With FYROM for instance it is economically possible. FYROM, or Macedonia, is comparable with Bulgaria at the time when they got the Europe [association] agreement, so there is certainly an economic ground, a sound basis for an association with FYROM, independent of the political arguing."

Buda says Macedonia faces the "classical" transition problems found in the region, and in addition is disadvantaged by heavy dependence on trade and transport links with Serbia, which are now being disrupted. That makes Macedonia harder hit economically than Albania.

Nevertheless it has organized industrial and agricultural sectors, and a government in charge of the country. Buda says that in view of this, he expects that by mid-May the European Commission will present a paper setting out possible elements of an association agreement.

He said he expects rapid forward movement on some form of association for Macedonia. But he cautioned that this agreement might fall short of the association agreements, known as Europe agreements, presently enjoyed by countries like Bulgaria and Romania. The EU is aware of the frustrations building up among the existing candidate countries, who have already been waiting years for membership and have certainly more years to wait.

"Now we are in a situation where we cannot digest even Poland, Hungary and so-on, and in fact to accept more and more people in the waiting room would create frustration. In any case countries like Bulgaria and Romania will probably become increasingly frustrated."

Buda says current thinking in the EU Executive Commission is that it would be better to create for newcomers a type of technical association, without the perspective of accession as EU members.