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EU moves to include western Balkan states

Reuters STRASBOURG/BRUSSELS (Reuters) — The European Union acted on Tuesday to reinvigorate the membership ambitions of six Balkan states and reclaim the region as its own amid growing Russian and Chinese influence, setting 2025 as a goal for Serbia and Montenegro to join.

Seeking to breathe fresh life into the EU with Britain set to leave, the European Commission laid out a strategy to bring western Balkan nations into the fold if they achieve required reforms, marking a change after years of fading interest.

“The door is open ... There is a clear path for the Western Balkans to finally join the European Union,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia as she presented the plan at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

“The future of the Union is not bound to be at 27,” she said, referring to the current membership level of the bloc, discounting Britain, which is due to leave in 2019.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said it was a call to “work every day from now ... to become part of the European family of nations.”

Johannes Hahn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, earlier urged the bloc not to repeat past mistakes, alluding to what many believe was the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU.

Brussels has been growing worried about Russia’s assertiveness on its borders since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 — concerns exacerbated in the Balkans after Montenegro accused Russia of supporting a failed coup in 2016.

Meanwhile, Chinese investment in the region, though welcomed by governments, is seen as undermining EU standards because it does not come with the same stringent requirements as EU aid.

Underlining the renewed enthusiasm for the Balkans, top EU officials said there was no alternative but for the countries to join the European Union. Support for EU membership ranges from roughly 75 percent in Kosovo to 52 percent in Serbia.

The EU’s Balkan strategy aims to show that membership is certain if the region’s states meet EU demands including establishing independent courts, a free press and breaking up crime rings that have badly weakened governments.Speech

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