EU grants Montenegro candidate status

"This is a strong signal of our commitment to the future of the Balkans," said Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the EU's executive, the European Commission. He was speaking at the conclusion of a year-end summit of EU leaders.

Candidacy status is considered the key stepping stone for membership in the bloc. Still, Montenegro will likely require another four to five years to finalise technical negotiations with the union.

The EU said Montenegro must make progress in areas such as combating corruption before those talks get under way.

The nation of 673,000 people, long part of the former Yugoslavia, emerged as an independent nation in 2006 after the dissolution of its short-lived union with Serbia.
Of the eight states of the western Balkans, only Slovenia is an EU member. Croatia has nearly completed its accession negotiations and expects to be inducted next year or in 2012.

The integration of the western Balkans into the union has been slowed down in recent years by the EU's preoccupation with its own institutional reforms and the current debt crisis. The bloc also has been affected by "enlargement fatigue" after accepting a dozen new members, most of them former communist nations in eastern and central Europe.
"This is a great day for Montenegro, but also for the region," said Slavica Milacic, an adviser to President Milo Djukanovic and until recently the country's ambassador to the EU.

"Montenegro is the first country in the western Balkans in the last five years to be granted candidate status," she said in a telephone interview from Podgorica.
"It's also very important for the region because it gives a clear signal that the process of integration into the EU will continue."

The other countries in the western Balkans -- Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Serbia -- are still in the preliminary phases of the accession process. Kosovo, whose independence remains unrecognised by five EU states has not even started down the road to membership.

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