BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The European Union's enlargement commissioner urged Serbia and its neighbors on Friday to stay on course toward membership in the 28-nation bloc amid Russia's attempts to maintain influence in the Balkan region.
"For too long, Serbia and the so-called Western Balkans have been seen as the backyard of Europe," Johannes Hahn said. "Today, people see that this region is already an enclave in the EU, with the legitimate right to join."
He said in a speech at an EU-Serbia conference in Belgrade that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain was the beginning of the reunification of Europe.
"But this process, which began in 1989, will only be complete with the accession of all the six countries of Western Balkans to the European Union," Hahn said.
Serbia is deeply split between those seeking EU membership and those wanting a close alliance with traditional ally Russia, which considers the region its traditional sphere of interest. Moscow has increased its political and propaganda efforts to keep the Balkan countries out of the Western integrations.
The EU enlargement has stalled because of internal problems. The expected date for accession of the Balkan countries has been moved to 2025, playing into the hands of nationalists who say Russia is offering immediate economic and other benefits.
"Integration into the European Union remains our strategic goal and one of our biggest priorities," Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said at a joint press conference with Hahn.
Serbia has refused to join EU's sanctions against Russia for its policies in Ukraine. Hahn said this will need to change.
"Serbia's commitment to EU membership also implies that it progressively aligns with the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy by the date of accession," Hahn said. "As an important EU partner and as a candidate country, Serbia needs to make additional efforts in this respect."