European Union and Balkan leaders held talks on Friday to discuss the region's integration into the bloc and the challenges it faces due to the global economic crisis.
"All of us here are striving for the same goal -- eventual integration of southeastern European countries in the Euro-Atlantic political and security framework," Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said on opening the two-day meeting.
About 15 prime ministers and foreign ministers from the region and the European Union gathered in the southern Adriatic resort of Dubrovnik, the Croatian foreign ministry said.
Croatia hopes to conclude membership talks with Brussels by the end of the year and become a full-fledged EU member by 2012.
"Croatia sends a positive message to all countries aspiring to join the European family," Kosor said, adding that Zagreb would strongly support the others on that path.
The integration of the volatile Balkans region, torn apart by wars in the 1990s, would "strengthen the security of European territory," she said.
President Ivo Josipovic said that EU membership would "determine the development of this part of the world in a permanent and key way."
"Both the EU and this gathering should send a clear message that there is a place in the EU for all southeastern European countries -- it is a message of optimism, encouragement," Josipovic said.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the region's future was within the EU, but stressed that if the countries want to join the bloc they need to undergo "deep transformations" in all fields.
"That is why Croatia's success in the process of joining the EU is so important," he said, adding that Zagreb could serve an "example in the region."
EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele and several NATO officials also attended the meeting.
Other prime ministers in attendance were Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov, Poland's Donald Tusk, Slovenia's Borut Pahor, Albania's Sali Berisha and Hashim Thaci of Kosovo.
Serbia boycotted the meeting to protest the presence of representatives from Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move recognised by the United States and most EU member states, but challenged by Belgrade.
Serbia is challenging the legality of Kosovo's independence declaration before the UN International Court of Justice, which is expected to give a non-binding opinion in the coming months.
Fillon in Dubrovnik said he hopes that the ICJ's opinion helps establish a productive dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.
"We all wish for this calm dialogue, since it will strengthen the stability of the Western Balkans and since it is needed for both Serbia's and Kosovo's approach to the EU," Fillon said.
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