BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Tuesday warned Balkan countries hoping to join the bloc that none will be invited until they have resolved all disputes with their neighbors.
In a new strategy paper for the western Balkans region, the EU's executive Commission said that Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and its former territory of Kosovo must find "definitive solutions to disputes with neighbors."
The prospect of EU membership has been a powerful incentive for reform in the region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s, but tensions still linger. Serbia and Montenegro, the latter a member of NATO, are well-placed to join should the 28-nation bloc open its doors again to new members. Croatia was the last country to join, almost five years ago.
The Commission said that Serbia and Montenegro could be allowed in by around 2025 if they meet all the conditions.
For Serbia that includes finalizing a "comprehensive, legally binding normalization agreement" with Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence a decade ago. The move has not been recognized by all the EU's 28 members, notably Spain due to concern over its own independence-minded regions like Catalonia.
The year 2025 "is an indicative date; an encouragement so that the parties concerned work hard to follow that path," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.
Juncker also underlined in particular that "there can be no further accession for Western Balkans countries without border disputes having first been resolved."
That pointed warning came after a speech to the European Parliament by Croatia Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.
Croatia and Slovenia — both EU members — are locked in a border dispute stemming from the breakup of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Among their points of dispute, they disagree over an international ruling granting Slovenia unhindered access to the Adriatic Sea.
Macedonia has met many conditions for membership, but its candidacy has been held up by a dispute with Greece over the tiny Balkans republic's name. The chances of Kosovo or Bosnia joining anytime soon seem distant.
The new EU strategy, with an estimated total cost of around 500 million euros ($616 million), will focus on improving the rule of law, security and migration, social and economic development, transport and energy connectivity, digital affairs, and the support for reconciliation and good neighborly relations among the six Balkan countries.
In Belgrade, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic hailed the potential accession timeframe, saying Serbia would work hard to fulfill the "ambitious but achievable" plan. Serbia does not want a "frozen conflict" with Kosovo, Brnabic added.
Further east, Turkey is also a candidate for EU membership but its accession talks are at a standstill.
Austria, France and Germany are notably cool on Turkey joining, while Manfred Weber, the head of the European People's Party — the biggest bloc in the European Parliament — insisted that the EU should remain a Christian club.
"Our democracies, welfare states and social market economies could only arise because of our Christian values of responsibility, solidarity and freedom," he said. "There will only be a Europe that sticks to its Christian heritage or no Europe at all."
Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.