EU commissioner: Croatia could complete accession talks in 2009

Croatia could conclude its accession talks with the European Union by the end of 2009 and join the 27-member bloc by the end of the decade, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Ollie Rehn said Thursday.

"The next year of 2009 is bound to be ... the year of Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership (as Croatia could be) concluding the negotiations by the end of next year," he told reporters in Prague after meeting Czech officials, reported dpa.

The trickiest chapters, Rehn said, will be likely negotiated in the first half of 2009 when the Czech Republic, which supports Croatia's EU bid, is due to hold the bloc's six-month rotating presidency.

"We want the talks to finish that year," Czech Vice-Premier for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra said.

Serbia could also move forward on its track to EU membership next year. "Serbia should have real chances of achieving candidate status in 2009," Rehn said.

Unlike French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the commissioner said he does not see the so-called Lisbon Treaty, designed to streamline decision-making in the union, as a condition for further enlargement.

"We should not link enlargement to ratification of the Lisbon Treaty," Rehn said, expressing hopes that the EU would reform its institutions before Croatia enters the bloc.

"We have plenty of time to conclude the reform and make the European Union more effective before the next 28th member state of the union will join our family," he said.

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