SOFIA (Reuters) - The European Union on Friday told six Western Balkan nations seeking membership that they would have to implement difficult reforms before they can be allowed to join the wealthy bloc.
Worried about growing Russian and Chinese influence in the Balkans, the EU has launched a new integration campaign, giving Serbia and Montenegro a tentative accession date of 2025.
But many EU members remain wary of letting in a region still scarred by wars fought along ethnic lines in the 1990s and dogged by a reputation for lawlessness.
They say the candidates - which also include Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia - must improve their democratic credentials and root out graft and organized crime.
“Everybody realizes that the conditions have to be met, that quality comes before speed, that the strategy is not an invitation to do away with conditionality,” the EU’s top enlargement official, Johannes Hahn, told a meeting of EU and Western Balkan foreign ministers in Bulgaria.
Germany leads the skeptics’ camp, highlighting continued problems with corruption and the rule of law in countries that have joined the EU since 2004, including Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
“It is important to move forward, but on both sides. We need to be open and we need to ask for a lot of reforms,” said Belgium’s Didier Reynders.
Regional disputes also hamper the accession process, with Serbia’s president warning on Friday that Belgrade was unlikely to support full recognition of Kosovo as an independent state in exchange for winning EU membership.
Spain, where a standoff between Madrid and Catalan separatists intensified in recent months, is among five EU states that do not recognize Kosovo either.
The foreign minister of Macedonia, locked in a name dispute with EU member Greece, said he hoped recent diplomatic efforts would soon lead to a compromise with Athens over his country’s name. Greece says the name ‘Macedonia’ implies a territorial claim on a northern Greek province of the same name and has been blocking Skopje’s EU bid.
“We are doing everything we can so that there be a political decision in June,” said the minister, Nikola Dimitrov, hoping the EU would agree to start membership negotiations then.
His Albanian colleague, Ditmir Bushati, said the region needed EU development money, not only advice on strengthening democracy: “Rule of law comes first but there is no rule of law without economic development.”
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska Editing by Gareth Jones