Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Questions (225)

Bernard J. Durkan


364 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the extent to which he and his EU colleagues are monitoring the situation in the Balkans; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25526/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Foreign)

The EU has taken the lead role in working with the countries of the western Balkans to consolidate peace and stability in the region and to promote economic development and respect for human rights and the rule of law. The situation in the western Balkans remains a regular item on the agenda for the monthly meetings of the General Affairs and External Relations Council.

The EU-Western Balkans summit, which was held in Thessaloniki in June 2003, agreed a shared agenda for progress towards the objective of the eventual integration of the countries of the region into EU structures. Progress is based on the implementation of wide-ranging administrative, political and economic reforms, in the framework of the Union's stabilisation and association process.

The Government ensured that during Ireland's Presidency, the priority which the EU has attached to the western Balkans was fully maintained. Ireland worked to strengthen the Union's overall policy framework, which provides for individual progress by the countries of the region, in the context of closer regional co-operation. Significant progress was made in the implementation of commitments made by the EU under the Thessaloniki agenda, notably with the adoption in June of European partnerships for each of the countries of the region. The partnerships draw on the experience of the latest enlargement process. As agreed at Thessaloniki, the Union has also strengthened its political dialogue with the countries of the western Balkans.

The decisions taken by the EU in the first half of this year on the applications for membership by Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia should be an encouragement to the other countries of the region to persevere with the reform process. On 6 October, the European Commission presented its strategy paper on the enlargement process, which recalled the June European Council decision to begin accession negotiations with Croatia early in 2005. The Commission put forward suggested elements for a negotiating framework, which I expect will be adopted by the Council in the coming months.

As agreed by the Council in May, the Commission is preparing its formal opinion on the application from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The process is expected to take about one year. Progress on the application will depend in large part on the full implementation of the Ohrid framework agreement, which ended the conflict in the country in 2001 and which provides for the creation of a truly multi-ethnic society in which the rights of the ethnic Slav and ethnic Albanian populations are fully respected. One of the most important elements which remains to be implemented is the decentralisation of local government, which involves the redrawing of administrative boundaries with the objective of safeguarding the rights of minorities and their participation in decision making. The necessary legislation has been adopted by Parliament, but it will be the subject of a referendum on 7 November following the organisation of a petition by members of the ethnic Slav community who oppose the measures.

At the most recent meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, which I attended in Brussels on 11 October, discussion on the western Balkans focused on the prospects for progress towards negotiations for a stabilisation and association agreement with Serbia and Montenegro and on the situation in Kosovo. The Council welcomed the results of the joint visit to Belgrade on 5 October by Commissioner Patten and High Representative Solana. The purpose of the visit was to discuss the details of the twin-track approach which Ministers agreed in September should be adopted towards negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro on economic and trade matters. The Council welcomed the decision of the Commission to resume work on its feasibility study, which I hope will enable progress on the opening of negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro early next year. The Council was also briefed by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Ms. Carla del Ponte, following which the Council emphasised the need for all the countries of the region to fulfil their pledge to co-operate fully and unequivocally with the tribunal.

The Council also considered the situation in Kosovo, which will remain an important subject for attention in the months ahead, in preparation for the review of progress on the implementation of standards which will be carried out in mid-2005. The Council emphasised the importance of the Kosovo Assembly elections, which will be held on 23 October, and welcomed the statement by the President of Serbia calling on the Kosovo Serb parties to participate. The EU will continue to work closely with the UN, with the wider international community and with the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina in the interests of a multi-ethnic, democratic Kosovo, consistent with EU values and standards, and contributing to the stability of the region.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains under review by the Council. The country has made considerable progress this year in implementing reforms in the 16 major areas identified by the Commission's feasibility study in November 1993. I hope that progress will be sufficient to enable a Council decision in the coming months on the opening of negotiations for an agreement with Bosnia. The June European Council adopted a comprehensive policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, which sets out practical arrangements to enhance the coherence and effectiveness of the EU's developing political, economic and security role in co-operation with the Bosnian authorities. A further significant development will be the transition by the end of the year from the UN-mandated, NATO-led SFOR peacekeeping force in Bosnia to an EU-led force.

Negotiations for a stabilisation and association agreement with Albania have been continuing since early 2003. Progress has been relatively slow and it is important that the pace of implementation of reforms is stepped up to enable the conclusion of the negotiations. I recognise the strong desire of the Albanian Government to implement the necessary reforms, and I hope that this will ensure sufficient progress to enable the conclusion of the negotiations during 2005.

Question No. 365 answered with QuestionNo. 166.