Merkel sees strategic case for Balkan states joining EU

BERLIN, July 5 (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday she sees the six Western Balkan states as future members of the European Union for strategic reasons.

"It is in the European Union's very own interests to drive the process forward here," Merkel told reporters after a virtual Western Balkans conference, hinting at the influence of Russia and China in the region but without naming them.

She said stronger regional cooperation promoted since 2014 had already achieved initial successes, such as a roaming agreement that had just come into force.

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The conference was attended by the heads of government of Serbia, Albania, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen said: "Our first priority is to accelerate the enlargement agenda across the region and support our Western Balkan partners in their work to deliver on the necessary reforms to advance on their European path."

In the video conference, France's President Emmanuel Macron had "very clearly" declared his support for the prospect of the six states joining the EU, Merkel emphasised.

Separately, Merkel said Germany would give 3 million COVID-19 vaccination doses to the Western Balkan nations "as soon as possible".

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Reporting by Paul Carrel and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Giles Elgood

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