BRUSSELS (AP) — The EU formally opened accession talks Friday with tiny Montenegro, a move meant to reassure other countries that the 27-nation bloc remains open for enlargement despite its deep economic crisis.
Despite the continent's debt woes, EU membership remains the goal of all Balkan nations that have not yet joined. Croatia has just completed negotiations and is slated to become the 28th member next year. Other western Balkans states — Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia — are all in various stages of the accession process. Turkey and Iceland are also candidates.
"Even though we have an internal crisis to deal with, (this shows) that the western Balkans have chosen the European way," said Denmark's Minister of European Affairs Nicolas Woemmen, who heads the union's rotating presidency.
Once a nation is approved for talks, it must successfully enact EU rules and legislation on 35 topics before it can be cleared for membership. Most topics deal with economic issues but others cover human rights, the independence of the judiciary and anti-corruption measures.
The EU has been suffering from "enlargement fatigue" after accepting 10 new members in 2004 and two more in 2007. It was criticized for allowing Romania and Bulgaria to join in 2007 despite delays in reforming their judicial systems and combating corruption and organized crime.
In light of that, it is adopting a novel approach with Montenegro, focusing immediately on justice and human rights issues to give the country more time to implement judicial reforms.
Membership talks usually last about five years, but in the case of Montenegro — which is roughly the size of Connecticut — may go faster because of its small size. The Adriatic nation of 625,000 people is also considered a leading candidate to join the North Atlantic treaty Organization.
During World War I, Montenegro fought with the Allies, but in 1919 it became the only Allied country to disappear off the map when it was forcibly incorporated into a kingdom that would later be renamed Yugoslavia. That nation broke apart amid the wars of the early 1990s but for a time Montenegro remained united with Serbia.
Serbia and Montenegro split peacefully in 2006 after Montenegro held a referendum on independence.