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Montenegro formally applies to join European Union

16 December 2008, 13:39 CET

(PARIS) - The mountainous Balkan republic of Montenegro formally applied on Monday to join the European Union, reopening the fraught issue of the bloc's expansion ambitions.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic made the request at a meeting in Paris with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the rotating EU presidency, and the group's expansion commissioner, Finland's Olli Rehn.

Montenegro is a former Yugoslav republic that split from Serbia in 2006 following a national referendum and is now an independent country of around 680,000 people.

It signed a "Stabilisation and Association Agreement" with the European Union in October 2007, the first stage in a country's quest for membership.

Monday's formal request to join was the next hurdle in the lengthy process of reform and negotiation that candidate countries must undergo before joining the European Union, which already has 27 members.

"It's a great day for Montenegro," Djukanovic said.

"It's also a great day for the European Union, because today it confirms its intention to unite the European continent," he added, briefing reporters after a short meeting with the French leader at the Elysee Palace.

The further expansion of Europe has become a controversial issue in recent years with many countries, France among them, opposed to admitting more new members until the Union's internal rules are reformed.

Last year, EU member states thought they had reached a deal to streamline the bloc's governance with the Lisbon treaty, but this was rejected by Irish voters in a referendum and has yet to be ratified by the Czech Republic.

Aside from Montenegro, Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia have also begun negotiations on joining the group. Albania, Bosnia and Serbia have also been promised the prospect of becoming members, but are not yet in formal talks.

The situation of Serbia has been made more complex by the case of Kosovo, which has declared independence and has EU ambitions of its own. Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo's independence, and EU members are split on the issue.

Candidate countries must meet a number of democratic, economic and legal standards before they are allowed to join the Union. Montenegro has promised reform, but has been labelled in the past as a haunt of organised crime.

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