Europe tries to get a grip in Balkans

Europe agreed to revamp its faltering efforts to revitalise the Balkans yesterday, giving a new role to its top foreign policy supremos and offering economic enticements to countries in the region to embrace Western reforms.

"We are going to open a new page," said Javier Solana, Europe's high representative for foreign policy, who, with Chris Patten, Europe's external affairs commissioner, was given the task of increasing Europe's impact.

One year to the day after the start of Nato's bombing campaign, European leaders moved to stave off mounting criticism of the West's work in the Balkans by admitting the need to bolster their efforts. Tony Blair said that the new measures "will allow us to get a better grip on that situation".

At their summit in Lisbon, EU leaders said that it was down to Europe to play "the central role" in supporting Kosovo, and agreed on the need for backing "in a much more co-ordinated, coherent fashion".

Yesterday's action follows a controversial report by Mr Solana and Mr Patten - both of whom have recently visited south-eastern Europe - which was highly critical of Europe's efforts. Their joint document concluded that the West was having "considerable difficulties" in Kosovo, that ethnic violence was "at high levels" and that the UN's administration was dogged by "insufficient personnel and resources".

Now Mr Solana and Mr Patten have been asked to come up with a new and concrete set of proposals including measures to increase trade concessions offered to all Balkan countries except Serbia, and to step up assistance to Montenegro.

With President Milosevic's grip over Yugoslavia seen as the fundamental obstacle to progress in the Balkans, Europe repeated its plea to the Serbian people to "take their future into their own hands", to cast off their current leadership and "join the European family".