Presenting the enlargement strategy Olli Rehn, Commissioner for enlargement said: "A carefully managed enlargement process is one of the EU's most powerful and most successful policy tools. The pull of the EU helps the democratic and economic transformation of countries. All European citizens benefit from having neighbors that are stable democracies and prosperous market economies. The EU cannot abandon its responsibilities. But the pace of enlargement also has to take into consideration the EU's absorption capacity".
The EU must remain rigorous in demanding fulfillment of its criteria, but fair in duly rewarding progress. Aspirant countries can only proceed from one stage of the process to the next once they have met the conditions for that stage. The Commission will assist the countries and monitor their progress.
The EU's relations with Croatia and Turkey entered into a new phase on 3 October, when accession negotiations were opened. Negotiations will be based on the country's own merits and their pace will depend on the country's progress in meeting the requirements for membership.
For the other countries of the Western Balkans, the Commission proposes a road map for realizing their European perspectives, setting out the stages and conditions attached to each stage. Establishing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU is a fundamental step in this process. Albania has made sufficient overall progress to establish implementation capacity, paving the way for concluding negotiations on such an agreement. Serbia and Montenegro have just opened SAA negotiations, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will do so shortly.
A country's satisfactory track-record in implementing its SAA obligations (including the application of its trade-related provisions in the form of an Interim Agreement) will be an essential element for the EU to consider any membership application. Based on a Commission opinion, the EU may grant a country the status of candidate. The Commission recommends that the Council grants the status of candidate country to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Candidate status is a political recognition of a closer relationship with the EU, but it does not automatically mean that a country can start negotiations for EU membership. To do so, the country needs to reach a sufficient degree of general compliance with the membership criteria. In particular, the country needs to meet the political criteria, including full co-operation with the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia where relevant.
Kosovo's further progress towards the EU is also part of the enlargement strategy. European integration is essential to achieve a sustainable settlement on the status of Kosovo that reinforces the security and stability of the region. (EK/YE)
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