European Union foreign ministers disagreed yesterday over a proposal by the bloc's executive to push for expansion into the Western Balkans, a region still scarred by ethnic wars fought in the 1990s.
Meeting in Bulgaria, the EU ministers discussed for the first time the plan by the European Commission that set out 2025 as a goal for Serbia and Montenegro to join the bloc. Poland, Italy and Austria are also among those in favor of stepping up efforts to open the EU to the region, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence.
"Who will be first in Belgrade - China or the EU? It is that [which] we have to counteract, as it is our immediate neighborhood," Austria's Karin Kneissl told reporters, according to Reuters.
But Germany, the EU's leading power, is very reluctant, pointing to rule-of-law shortcomings in the newer member states - from Romania and Bulgaria, to Poland and Hungary. France's Jean-Yves Le Drian was also cautious. "It's clear there are conditions and that those conditions are demanding," he said.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov warned it was now or never for expanding the EU into the Balkans as concerns grow about Moscow's influence in the bloc's eastern backyard. "If there's no enlargement now, there'll be no other time for enlargement," said Borisov, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, as reported by AFP. "Otherwise what China, Russia, Turkey are planning for the region, they will start today."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijarto said the 2025 target was "very late" for Montenegro and Serbia and echoed Borisov's warning about outside players making their move.
"It is obvious the US has a strategy on the Western Balkans, Russia has a strategy on the Western Balkans, Turkey has a strategy on the Western Balkans, it is only the European Union which is extremely slow," he said.
"If we take it seriously that we, the European Union, would like to be the winner regarding strategies and regarding endeavors on the Western Balkans we should be much quicker."
The EU is wary of admitting new members before they settle their differences, particularly in a region still bedeviled by the aftermath of the bloody break-up of 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 EU has also been stung by taking on new members when they were arguably not yet ready. The bloc has been dragged into an increasingly bitter maritime row between Croatia, which joined in 2014, and Slovenia.
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