The consolidation of peace and stability in the western Balkans remains an important political priority for the European Union. Events in the region are reviewed at each of the monthly meetings of General Affairs and External Relations Council. I have assured my colleagues on the Council, and the countries of the region, that Ireland will continue to accord the western Balkans high priority throughout our EU Presidency.
The institutional framework for the development of relations with the region was confirmed at the EU-western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003, which agreed a shared agenda for progress. The objective of the eventual integration of the countries of the western Balkans into the EU will be met through progress in the strengthened stabilisation and association process and implementation of the series of agreements which brought an end to the tragic conflicts in the region over the past 12 years. For the first time ever, all the countries of the western Balkans now have democratically elected Governments. They face the challenge of adopting and implementing difficult and wide-ranging economic, political and administrative reforms. Economic development will only be assured through improvements in regional co-operation.
The rate of progress towards European integration is now largely in the hands of the Governments of the region. The EU will continue to support them fully. Both sides of the relationship made commitments at Thessaloniki, and these must be implemented. We hope that following their elaboration by the Commission and approval by the Council, the expected presentation of European partnerships to each of the countries of the western Balkans will serve to emphasise the reality of the commitment to European integration and of the challenging policy developments required to make further measurable progress.
During Ireland's EU Presidency, the Commission will present its opinion on Croatia's application for EU membership, and, if sufficient progress is made, the feasibility study on the opening of negotiations on a stabilisation and association agreement with Serbia and Montenegro. Macedonia will present its application for membership of the EU at the end of February. Negotiations will continue on an agreement with Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is now engaged in a process of implementation of wide-ranging reforms identified in the Commission feasibility study last November, with a view to a possible decision on the opening of negotiations with the EU later this year.
The situation in Kosovo will also receive close attention. At the request of the Council, High Representative Solana, in consultation with the Commission and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Mr. Harri Holkeri, is currently preparing a report on the enhancement of the EU role in support of the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1244 in Kosovo. The situation in Kosovo will be discussed at the next meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 23 February.
The General Affairs and External Relations Council last month reviewed the situation in Serbia and Montenegro, following the general elections in Serbia on 28 December 2003. The Council urged all the democratic parties to work together to ensure the early formation of a government committed to the reform agenda and to further progress. The Council emphasised that the EU will give its full support to the efforts of a new democratic government on this basis. It is a cause for concern, however, that the democratic parties have not yet reached agreement on the formation of a government.