Crime, media restrictions limit Balkan progress to EU: report

By Robin Emmott

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Balkan countries seeking to join the European Union must do more to tackle organized crime and corruption, the European Commission said on Wednesday, while also urging Serbia to safeguard press freedoms.

Montenegro, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are all seeking membership of the world's largest trading bloc and the EU has moved fastest to help integrate the Balkans. Near neighbor Turkey also wants to join.

In its annual progress report for aspiring members of the European Union, the Commission signaled that no country is likely to be ready for membership soon.

For both the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the integration process has stalled, the Commission said.

There has been no success is resolving Greece's block on the launch of negotiations because the former republic calls itself "Macedonia", a name Athens says is a territorial appropriation of the name of its northern Greek province.

The Commission also blamed "a lack of collective political will" in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the lack of progress there, saying there has been no effective coordination to prepare the country for EU membership.

Corruption remains a problem in Albania, Serbia and Kosovo. Montenegro has made progress on that front but is not doing enough to investigate cases of violence against journalists and making final convictions in corruption cases.

In Serbia, the Commission is also worried about the repression of journalists and media organizations.

"There are concerns about deteriorating conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression," the report said.

Membership of the EU means joining the world's largest trading bloc with its free movement of workers, funding for poorer regions and the offer of greater prosperity for citizens.

But following the worst financial crisis in a generation and with more than 18 million people out of work in the euro zone, Europeans are less willing to accept newcomers.

Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker has said no new countries will join the European Union over the next five years, although negotiations will continue.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Toby Chopra)