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article imageEU tells Balkans to end disputes to join by 2025

By Danny KEMP (AFP)     Feb 6, 2018 in World

The European Union unveiled a new plan on Tuesday to give membership to some Balkan states by 2025 but said they must first resolve all border rows to join the bloc.

Brussels's roadmap for six countries in the region comes as the EU eyes expanding after Brexit and countering the influence of Russia and other states in its eastern backyard.

Montenegro and Serbia are the frontrunners to join, with Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia lagging behind, but all are getting impatient after the EU put expansion on hold four years ago.

However, the European Commission's strategy for the Western Balkans says they must all first root out problems with corruption and the rule of law, and, especially, settle a series of simmering territorial disputes.

"There will be no further accession of the countries of the Western Balkans without resolving the main conflicts beforehand," Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

EU leaders are to endorse the commission's strategy at a special summit in the Bulgarian capital Sofia in May with the leaders of the six Balkan nations.

- Territorial splittings -

The Balkans have long been a European flashpoint, and remain bedevilled by a series of thorny issues, most of them stemming from the blood-soaked break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Serbia and Kosovo remain at odds 10 years after Pristina made a declaration of independence that Belgrade still rejects, while Macedonia and current EU member Greece have clashed over Macedonia's name, the issue behind huge protests in Athens on Sunday.

Kosovo also has a border dispute with Montenegro.

The EU has also been stung in the past by taking on new members arguably before they were ready.

Greece sank into debt that nearly brought down the eurozone, while large numbers of migrants moving from Bulgaria and Romania to Britain fueled the immigration debate that played a key role in Britain's vote to leave the bloc.

More specifically the EU has been dragged into a maritime row between Croatia, which joined in 2014, and Slovenia.

"This gamble of saying that we will solve the problem some time after accession will not take place a second time, not with me," Juncker said.

The so-called Western Balkans strategy unveiled by the European Commission sets out key areas for both helping countries get closer to membership, as well as demands for things they must do first.

- 'Part of Europe' -

"The Western Balkans are part of Europe," EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said as she unveiled the strategy in Strasbourg, adding that it was "crucial to make sure that this historic and unique opportunity is seized."

Juncker said last year that he wanted Serbia and Montenegro to join by 2025 but warned on Tuesday against too much "excitement" over the prospect.

"It is wrong if it is claimed that I or the Commission have said that Serbia's and Montenegro's accession must be in place by 2025," Juncker told MEPs.

"No, this is an indicative date, an encouragement date, so that the people concerned can consistently set out on their way."

Juncker ruled out any enlargement during his five-year tenure when he took the helm of the EU's executive arm in 2014 -- and in fact the bloc is set to lose a member, Britain, next year.

Encouragement is sorely needed for many of them. Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005, Montenegro since 2010, Serbia since 2012, and Albania since 2014, while Bosnia applied for membership in 2016.

The fear in Brussels is that Russia will seek to increase its influence in a region that it has long regarded as part of its orbit. Officials say China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also trying to increase a foothold in the area.

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