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26th Aug 2019

EU divided over Western Balkan enlargement

EU foreign ministers disagreed over the integration of the Western Balkan on Thursday (15 February), after the European Commission had suggested last week that Serbia and Montenegro join the bloc by 2025.

Ministers meeting in Sofia discussed for the first time the EU executive's strategyon the region, one which Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign relations chief, called a "top priority" for the bloc.

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It its new policy, the commission warned that unresolved border issues need to be resolved before the countries could join the bloc. But the institution is determined to pull the region closer to the EU's orbit, with fears over increasing Russian, Turkish and Chinese influence at Europe's doorstep.

The front runners according to commission's assessment are Serbia and Montenegro, while Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia could join later.

Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said he was "very much disappointed" by the 2025 target, which he called "very late", arguing that Serbia and Montenegro should be admitted by 2022.

"We think the Western Balkans have tensions, but they are most easily overcome if the integration goes quickly," he said arriving to the meeting.

EU members Slovenia and Croatia have been struggling to sort out a long-standing border dispute, while Belgrade - and five EU countries - do not recognise the independence of Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia in 2008 after a scarring war.

EU member Greece has repeatedly clashed with Macedonia over the name of the Western Balkan country.

"It is obvious the US has a Western Balkans strategy, Russia has a Western Balkans strategy, Turkey has a Western Balkans strategy; it is only the European Union that is extremely slow," Szijjarto said.

Szijjarto said that if the EU wanted to be a "winner regarding endeavours in the Western Balkans", it has the be "much quicker".

Austria's foreign minister also spoke in favour of a swift integration of the region.

"There is always this question of who comes first to Belgrade: China or the European Union. And in those situations, we need to counteract because it is our neighbourhood and the European Union invests and is engaged, but everything still needs to be clearer," Karin Kneissl told reporters.

Slovenian foreign minister Karl Erjavec said, however, that even 2025 was "not realistic".

"Slovenia has had 20 years of dialogue with the Croatian side to find a solution regarding the border between Slovenia and Croatia. The same with Croatia and Serbia, 26 years and with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro," he said.

"I think that it is not possible to expect this condition in 2025, and this can be a big problem for EU enlargement and the Western Balkans," he added.

Germany and France, the two heavy-weights in the EU, are also reluctant.

"It is also clear that there are conditions and that they are demanding conditions. The way to achieve them it's difficult," France's minister of Europe and foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told reporters.

EU leaders are expected to formally endorse the EU's strategy during a special summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, in May.

Opinion

Western Balkans: A new start for Europe

The European Commission is rarely praised for bold action these days - but the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans deserves applause.

'Connectivity' trumps enlargement at Balkans summit

At the first summit in 15 years with Western Balkan leaders, EU chiefs made it clear that enlargement is not at hand - but offered economic incentives to keep the region close to the bloc.

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