EU accepts Macedonia as a candidate for membership

EU leaders accepted Macedonia Saturday as a candidate for membership but linked the Balkan nation's entry to a debate on the EU's future and its ability to absorb more relatively poor newcomers. "The (EU's) absorption capacity has to be taken into account" in a final assessment of Macedonia's membership, the 25 EU leaders said in a summit statement. Last month, the European Commission recommended naming Macedonia an EU candidate, widening their embrace of the Balkans to make the EU's volatile southeastern edge a safer place. The leaders agreed, saying Macedonia has made "substantial progress" in political and economic reforms. But in response to French concerns that the EU's expansion be tempered, they added that "further steps will have to be considered in the light of the debate on the EU's enlargement strategy (and) the absorption capacity of the union."That hesitation, the first since the EU started considering membership for more than a dozen and a half neighbors after the collapse of communism, stems from concerns the EU is expanding too fast.

The EU does not have the capacity to absorb more members, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said this week in the French parliament. In Macedonia, President Branko Crvenkovski celebrated the news. "Today, we received clear recognition of the progress we have made and a powerful endorsement of our democratic potential," Crvenkovski said Saturday from Skopje.

The EU's executive office also welcomed the decision and said it stood as an example for the region. "This decision is also the right political signal to send to the region of the Western Balkans as a whole: the EU has given a clear European perspective to these countries, provided they fulfill the conditions," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.

The European Commission calls Macedonia, which applied for EU membership in March 2004, "a European success story" for turning itself from a flash point of ethnic hatred in 2001 to a democratic country. A Western-brokered peace deal ended six months of fighting in Macedonia in 2001. The EU now has a police mission in the country of 2 million, of whom 25 percent are ethnic Albanians, overseeing the peace process, reports the AP. N.U.

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