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EU Says Croatia Nearing Entry, Macedonia May Start Talks

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's has executive arm said that Croatia could wrap up EU entry talks next year and recommended that the bloc start membership negotiations with Macedonia.

The European Commission said other EU hopefuls including Turkey had a lot more to do, criticizing corruption, weak administrations and making clear that it would take many years before the bulk of them could join the now 27-country EU.

"If Croatia meets all outstanding benchmarks in time, the accession negotiations could be concluded next year," the Commission said in an annual report on enlargement.

EU governments should open membership talks with Macedonia, another former Yugoslav country, it said.

"The country has made convincing progress and substantially addressed reform priorities," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a news conference.

Diplomats say a dispute with EU member Greece over Macedonia's name could jeopardize the plan. Greece has vetoed Macedonia's accession to NATO, saying the country's name implied territorial claims to Greece's own province of Macedonia.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski welcomed the commission's announcement, saying: "It's a historic day for Macedonia and its citizens. This report will serve as a signpost for our future steps.”

The report said Turkey must step up political and economic reforms, improve the rights of minorities, women, and trade unions as well as normalize relations with Cyprus.

Ankara recognizes the northern Turkish-dominated part of Cyprus and refuses to normalize ties with the southern part, which is an EU member. The island was split by a Turkish invasion triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup in early 1970s.

The report raised concerns over Turkey's treatment of media group Dogan Yayin in a tax dispute, saying the issue may affect freedom of the press in the country.

Turkey called the dispute an internal matter and said the EU was dragging its feet in membership talks.

"We are hoping that the European Union will reciprocate Turkey's decisiveness for reform with the same decisiveness to take us into the Union," EU Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis said.

The French government opposes Turkey's full membership and Germany has doubts.

The Commission said other hopefuls Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo were making uneven progress towards membership. The situation was especially grave in Bosnia, where leaders of ethnic communities have failed to cooperate on reforms.

The report gave no entry date for Croatia. Diplomats say the former Yugoslav state of 4.4 million could become the EU's 28th member in 2012 after ratification of its accession treaty.

But before Croatia can wrap up entry talks, it still needs to improve its fight against corruption and organized crime, boost its judicial system, and increase cooperation with the United Nations war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

"There is more effort to be made but this is probably the last such report as we will certainly wrap up this job by mid-2010," Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said.

Croatia's accession was made possible after it settled this month a border dispute with EU member Slovenia, which had frozen entry talks for a year.

There is little appetite for further enlargement among EU member states amid the economic crisis and following the bloc's costly expansion since 2004 to take in 12 mostly ex-communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe.