STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union needs to accept new members from the Western Balkans to avoid the risk of a new war there, the EU’s chief executive said on Tuesday, setting up a possible clash with France and Germany which have resisted further enlargement.
The European Commission is pushing for the EU to expand into a region which is still scarred by ethnic wars fought in the 1990s and dogged by a reputation for lawlessness.
“If we do not open up to countries in that highly complicated and tragic region, and if we do not open up a European perspective to them, we will see war returning to that area as we saw in the 1990s,” Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament.
“I do not want to see war returning to the Balkans and so we need to open up to them,” he said.
In a report published on Tuesday, the European Commission formally recommended starting membership talks with Albania, which became an official EU candidate country in 2014. EU governments must still give the go-ahead.
The Commission again recommended membership negotiations with Macedonia, but that step has been held up for years over a dispute with Greece over the country’s name.
Many officials hope EU governments can give the green light for membership talks with Albania and possibly also Macedonia in time for an EU leaders’ summit in June, which the Commission wants to use to give impetus to its Western Balkans’ expansion.
But French President Emmanuel Macron, also speaking in Strasbourg on Tuesday, said he believed the EU needed to improve its internal governance first before opening up to new members.
“Would we have 30, 32 (member states) in a couple of years’ time? With the same rules that is simply not feasible,” Macron said, referring to the bloc’s unwieldy decision-making structure that gives each country a European commissioner and policy area.
However, some EU countries such as Poland, Italy and Austria are in favour of stepping up efforts to open the EU to the region, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence.
Serbia and Montenegro are the frontrunners for EU membership and the Commission has set a target accession date of 2025.
All six Western Balkan nations seeking EU membership - they include Bosnia and Kosovo as well as Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro - have to do more to tackle corruption, organised crime and internal disputes before they can join the EU.
Reporting By Alastair Macdonald, additional reporting by Samantha Koester, Robert-Jan Bartunek and Robin Emmott, Editing by Gareth Jones