Central European states urge EU to speed up enlargement in west Balkans

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Seven Central European member states called on the European Union on Monday to accelerate the accession of Montenegro and Serbia to the bloc, saying a failure to integrate the western Balkans could pose a security threat to the whole region.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto attends an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers of the four Visegrad Group countries -- Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic -- as well as Austria, Slovenia and Croatia met in Budapest to discuss issues including migration and the situation in the western Balkans and Ukraine.

“If we cannot speed up the European integration process (in the western Balkans) ... we will have to face serious security challenges in the entire Central European region,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a news conference.

Szijjarto said the EU should accelerate its ongoing accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia and should open membership negotiations with the other countries in the western Balkans as well.

Albania and Macedonia are EU candidate nations but have yet to start their accession talks, while Bosnia and Kosovo have yet to be granted candidacy status, though both hope to join the EU.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec said the countries of the western Balkans should receive help in implementing the reforms needed to qualify for EU membership.

“The situation in the western Balkans is rather obscure, not stable, and... it will be necessary to ensure that there is dialogue to strengthen stability in this region,” he said.

Tensions remain high between Serbia and Kosovo, its former province whose independence is not recognized by Belgrade or by some other countries, while Macedonia and Bosnia are riven by ethnic divisions.

The prospect of EU membership has for years been the main driver of reform in the Balkans after a decade of war and upheaval in the 1990s.

But with Britain’s vote last year to leave the bloc, the rise of right-wing populism in many EU countries and debate over the future shape of the bloc, further enlargement has been placed firmly on the backburner.

Political analysts and diplomats say this has severely diminished the EU’s leverage in the western Balkans, which also remain dogged by poverty and corruption in addition to the ethnic and political divisions.

Russia, which is trying to exploit its historic links in the region to challenge EU and U.S. involvement, opposes the accession of Balkan states to the EU and NATO. Last month Montenegro became NATO’s 29th member, angering Moscow.

At a summit earlier this year EU leaders said more Balkan states could still join the bloc if they stuck to a path of economic and democratic reforms.

Reporting by Krisztina Than