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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union told Croatia Tuesday that its negotiations to join the bloc had entered their "final" stage," while chiding Turkey for its failure to improve relations with Cyprus.
In its annual report on countries lining up to join the EU, the executive European Commission also recommended Montenegro be granted EU candidate status, but deferred opening talks with that country because of concerns over rule of law there.
The report made clear the commission's concern over corruption and crime in candidate countries and widespread problems with upholding media freedom.
The report said Albania should also wait before making progress toward EU integration.
Regarding Turkey, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said Ankara should urgently meet its obligations toward Cyprus.
The EU did not give Croatia a date for completing talks or joining the 27-member bloc because it wants the former Yugoslav state to provide more evidence that it is serious about fighting corruption and coming to terms with the legacy of war. But it still offered encouragement over its bid to join.
"Negotiations with Croatia have entered their final stage," the report said. However, it said, talks will concluded only "once Croatia has met outstanding closing benchmarks."
Turkey's bid has met resistance from powerful member states such as France and Germany. The Commission repeated criticism of Turkey's failure to comply with a 2005 deal, known as the Ankara Protocol, under which it committed to open its ports to Cyprus.
A row with Cyprus, an EU member since 2004, over the northern part of the divided island -- where Turkish troops have been stationed since a 1974 conflict -- has helped slow Turkey's accession process to a standstill.
Turkey and Croatia are among a handful of countries aspiring to become EU members. Also looking to join are Iceland, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo.
However, the EU's enlargement policy has been set back by the global financial crisis, which has reduced public appetite for admitting new member states. Concerns over poor rule of law and corruption in many candidates are also a factor.
The Commission tried to allay such concerns, spelling out potential benefits of admitting new members.
"Enlargement makes the EU a safer place ... It makes us stronger and better equipped to promote our values and interests," Fuele told reporters.
Growing eastward, the Commission argues, will allow the EU to develop better transport corridors for trade, have more impact on climate change policy because EU rules force newcomers to clean up polluting industries, and better control over energy routes.
The membership of Turkey, in particular, could give the bloc more influence over the Middle East and the energy-rich Caucasus, and expand Europe's security eastwards.
To address concerns among some EU members that rule of law issues were overlooked when Romania and Bulgaria were allowed to join in 2007, the Commission postponed giving official candidate status to Albania and delayed starting talks with Montenegro.
Both countries struggle with graft and organized crime.
The report praised Serbia for some improvement in relations with Kosovo, its former province, while reminding Belgrade that more cooperation with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is needed if its membership bid is to move forward.